Indiana’s recently released ISTEP+ results show that our state’s students failed to make progress in key subjects such as English and math this year — with only 51 percent of third- through eighth-graders and 34 percent of 10th-graders passing both sections of the 2016-17 exam. Given these results, which are on par with last year’s scores, it is tempting to dismiss ISTEP+ outcomes as the product of a flawed state test.
But it’s neither productive nor fair to scapegoat ISTEP+, which aligns with the more rigorous academic standards adopted by our state in 2014 and incorporates a new testing approach that is more challenging than a traditional multiple-choice format. Instead, we should double down on solutions to address a key driver of low student academic performance: Indiana’s approach to recruiting, training and supporting teachers.
Here and across the U.S., teacher training and support systems have failed to keep up with proven practices in countries such as Canada and Finland, whose students significantly outperform U.S. students on global performance measures.
This reality is holding back too many teachers from realizing their potential. It’s also keeping would-be teaching talent from entering the field, as evidenced by a 33 percent decline in the number of teaching licenses issued in Indiana over the last seven years. And it’s contributing to high turnover rates for teachers, who are dissatisfied with the lack of professional autonomy and recognition.
This is a critical challenge because evidence from a large body of research shows that teachers have the biggest impact on student academic performance.
There are two primary differences between the U.S. and high-performing countries when it comes to teacher recruitment, training and support. First, the U.S. takes a less rigorous approach to selecting teacher candidates and providing them with content knowledge and intensive, hands-on training. Second, once teachers enter the field, our K-12 education system is not structured to provide teachers with opportunities for career advancement and higher pay that allow them to remain in the classroom.
The good news is we know how to address these challenges, based on the success of countries that have made elevating the teaching profession a top priority.
In these places, teacher candidates are recruited from the top third of high school graduates into competitive programs, where there are 10 times as many applicants as spots. Because teacher training programs are associated with research universities, the curriculum is constantly evolving to align with the latest research. All teacher candidates also must take courses in content areas they’re teaching, giving them rich expertise, and must undergo at least one year of structured clinical training akin to what aspiring doctors complete in medical school.
Once into their careers, teachers in top-performing countries have ample opportunities for advancement into leadership roles that keep them in the classroom with commensurately higher pay.
Encouragingly, Indiana has begun to take these kinds of steps towards elevating the teaching profession. This fall, Marian University launched The Educators College, a teacher-training program focused on selective recruitment and intensive preparation with a yearlong, paid clinical residency. Indianapolis Public Schools also has implemented the Opportunity Culture model, wherein teachers are provided career advancement opportunities within the classroom and higher pay — all within the existing IPS budget.
These represent important steps, but a sea-change in how we approach teacher training and support requires collaboration, from the K-12 schools that employ teachers to the teacher preparation programs that prepare them for the classroom. Now, more than ever, Indiana must commit to this — so we can help our students thrive academically and equip every young Hoosier to compete in today’s global economy.
Fiddian-Green is president and CEO of the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation.