10/27/2010 08:51 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Raising Standards for Teachers in the Wake of a Crisis

In what seems an absurd oxymoron, we currently have a teacher shortage in all 50 states, while simultaneously budgets for education shrink and pink slips land on teacher desks. One of my colleagues recently wrote about the pending teacher shortage crisis in the United States, noting the leading factors in this trend: the proportion of teachers nearing retirement, massive teacher layoffs, and the attrition rate of new teachers.

With a direct relationship between teacher quality and student achievement, the fact that our teacher pool is shrinking will surely undermine other attempts, policy-wise or grassroots, to realize positive reform in education. No amount of money or measures of accountability can counter the harmful effects of teaching position vacancies.

Like any difficult profession, teaching deserves fair compensation. Raising teacher salaries is generally what people advocate in trying to prevent teacher shortages and to raise the caliber of educators. Most people see comparatively low wages in teaching as the primary barrier to entry for bright, well-educated people. I would argue, however, that money might make going into teaching a deal breaker for a few, but most students at elite schools seek prestige just as much as a large paycheck. Because teaching holds relatively low social clout, graduates flow toward banking, medicine, law, consulting, and tech -- highly selective industries that call for only the best. If one makes it into one of these fields, it appears to mean he/she has accomplished something. Among an already competitive group of people, this selectivity holds a lot of power. Teaching, in my experience, is considered minimally selective.

McKinsey's recent study on "closing the talent gap" highlights the sad reality that in the United States, the education sector does not seem to draw substantially from the top third of universities. The findings conclude that countries that excel in recruiting top talent have highly selective processes and training programs that more closely resemble the rigor of law and medicine.

Teach For America and other alternative credentialing programs receive a lot of flack for putting "unprepared" teachers into the nation's most needy classrooms. With only a summer's worth of training, doe-eyed college graduates attempt to close the achievement gap in some of America's most under-resourced, under-staffed, and overlooked schools.

Even after long days working with students and planning for their academic growth, the average TFA corps member knows nothing about educational history, theory, philosophy, or pedagogy. Here's the kicker: regardless of their inexperience, they must take the same basic skills and content specific state exams that every other teacher does before stepping into the classroom. They often pass these exams with flying colors. With a bit of common sense and a decent track record with standardized tests, most TFA-ers are able to prove competency on exams geared to test teachers on their knowledge accumulated in years of education courses.

In no way am I championing alternative credential programs; I merely write to emphasize the point that corps members that many deem unqualified happen to walk into classrooms by the thousands, passing the tests in place for all teachers. Alternative credentialing programs may be criticized for the rushed manner in which eager young people are launched into classrooms, but this does not say anything to the abysmally low standards that many states have for new teachers. Why should being able to do 8th-grade math or write a mediocre essay within five hours be a sufficient test of a teacher's capacity?

Low state standards for teachers and schools of education make teaching less sexy for the "top third" of highly competitive, driven individuals at universities. If so few people recognize the course of becoming a teacher as legitimate, then becoming an educator is simply not an accomplishment in the eyes of these students. Though perhaps not ethically ideal, it is worth pondering.

I am clearly not the first person to notice this trend. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and countless educators are behind setting more rigorous standards to distinguish the most accomplished, learned teachers. I also acknowledge the thousands of brilliant teachers who work tirelessly without recognition, with the understanding that student achievement is a reward in itself. As we think of the potential teacher shortage, we must keep in mind not only ways to increase the number of teachers, but also who we want in classrooms. The most academically successful nations attract incredible teaching talent, at numbers consistent with demand. A drastic change in teaching standards would reduce the number of teachers initially, but it is a necessary step in securing a diverse, well-prepared teacher base for the future.