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Cross-posted on Education Week

We were gathered around a table in the office of a key state official. In the middle of the table was a chart. On the vertical axis was a scale showing the scores of entering students in the state’s teacher education institutions on a statewide college entrance examination. On the field of the chart were colored circles representing each of the teacher education institutions. Each was placed vertically with its center at the average score of their students on the state college entrance exam. The size of the circles represented the number of students at each of the institutions. Many of the circles were above the median performance on the statewide college entrance test. But the biggest circles were well below the median. Without question, the state is recruiting most of its new teachers from its less capable high school graduates.

The state’s leaders are determined to bring the state into the top ranks of states and countries measured by the OECD PISA surveys of student performance. And they are well aware that the research shows that the countries in those top ranks are typically recruiting their teachers from the upper ranks of their high school graduates.

This state is not in the United States. Unlike most American state boards of elementary and secondary education, it was in a position to set minimum scores for entrance into its teachers colleges. So you would think that they would institute a policy that would stipulate a high minimum score, so that they could be sure that they would get higher quality students entering their teacher colleges and therefore higher quality teachers.

But that is not happening. It turns out that the principals, classroom teachers and their unions—and they are very strong unions—are all for raising entrance requirements. They see it as in their interest to have as many high quality teachers as possible. But the teachers colleges are dead set against it. They are afraid that, if the standards of entry go up, they will lose students and have to let faculty go.

On the face of it, that makes no sense. The schools, you might say, need X many new teachers this year and are likely to need a comparable number next year, so why should the schools of education take in fewer candidates if the requirements for entry go up?

Well, it turns out that the combined output of the teachers colleges every year is enough to produce many more teachers than the state actually needs to hire each year. That produces a surplus of candidates for jobs in teaching and a surplus of candidates keeps the wages of teachers down. Young people who are making career decisions who did not do so well in high school may be attracted to teaching because it is easier to get into a teachers college than a law school or engineering school. If the state raised the requirements to get into education schools, then it would have to attract into its education schools students who would otherwise be choosing a path leading to law school, medical school or engineering school. But those occupations pay more than teaching and generally offer more professional autonomy and better working conditions.

So we asked whether the state is willing to pay for more teachers if it raises the entrance requirements for its teacher colleges. Oh no, was the response. The state is in a budget bind and higher wages for teachers are not on the table.

Well, we said, in the United States, the typical teachers college graduate has left the teaching profession after five years. The international evidence shows that, if you raise wages, raise standards for entry and improve working conditions, new teachers will stay a lot longer in the profession and the state will save a fortune on teacher training, because of the reduction in teacher turnover. Maybe you could pay for a big raise for teachers with the savings from reduced turnover.

But it turns out that, in this state, in this country, the current rate of turnover is half of what it is on average in the United States, so the possible savings would be much less than it would be in our country. No wonder, we thought, that the teachers colleges are dead set against raising standards. Their fear that the result would be to lower admissions and enrollments is very well founded. That looks like the makings of a stalemate on the teacher quality agenda.

We had a conversation the other day with the leaders of the higher education system in an American state. They are very much aware of these issues and very interested in dealing with them. But the higher education institutions in that state will not even share their data on the test scores of the students they admit to their teacher education institutions. This is not a conversation they want to have, because they are afraid of where it might lead.

But it is time to have that conversation. No one believes that high SAT scores or ACT scores, or high high school grade point averages by themselves guarantee that a candidate will be a good teacher. Everyone I know believes that a passion for teaching and an ability to relate well to young people are very important characteristics of good teachers. But these are not mutually exclusive qualities. The record shows that countries that recruit their teachers from a pool of people who score high on their college entrance exams, had high grade point averages and also show a passion for teaching and an ability to relate well to students produce higher student achievement across the board than countries that leave out one or more of these qualities when they are recruiting their students.

The fact that we have very high rates of attrition for new teachers gives the United States more room for maneuver. We can afford to raise teacher salaries in anticipation of substantial savings in the churn of teachers in our teacher labor market. Unfortunately, though, the costs here come out of one pocket and the savings will be realized in another. We have to find a politically sensible way to deal with that reality. When we do, we will be able to turn the corner on teacher quality. And, if there is anything at all to be learned from the experience of the top-performing nations, it is that this is the key to improving student performance.