Rethinking the teacher quality challenge

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"Human capital" is quickly becoming the new "site-based management." While few are sure what it means, everyone craves it, has a model to deliver it, and is quick to tout its restorative powers. It's trendy and impressive sounding, but too often settles for recycling familiar nostrums or half-baked ideas in the guise of new jargon. Ensuring that "human capital" amounts to more than one more glorified fad requires confronting the full extent of the challenge with honesty and imagination.

Our schools are in a constant, unending race to recruit and then retain some 300,000 teachers annually. Given that U.S. colleges issue a grand total of perhaps 1.5 million four-year diplomas a year across all majors and disciplines, even non-mathematicians can see that our K-12 schools are seeking to recruit about one in five new college graduates into the teaching profession. No wonder shortages are endemic and quality a persistent concern.

It does not have to be this hard. Our massive, three-decade national experiment in class-size reduction has exacerbated the challenge of finding enough effective teachers. There are other options. Researchers Martin West and Ludger Woessmann have pointed out that several nations that perform impressively on international assessments, including South Korea, Hong Kong, and Japan, boast average middle-school class sizes of more than 35 students per teacher. That compares to a national student-teacher ratio in the U.S. of less than 16 to 1, and average class sizes in the low to mid-twenties (our class sizes are so much larger than our student-teacher ratio because of how we deploy staff and the amount of non-instructional time built into teacher contracts).

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and director of Education Policy Studies at AEI.

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