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Volume 19, Number 1
January/February 2003


From A Nation at Risk to a Profession at Risk?


Despite all of the educational reform activity over the past two decades, the teaching profession currently faces daunting challenges. These include the influx of underqualified teachers into classrooms, the potential dismantling of professional education for teachers, and the trend toward the regulation of teaching practice—regulations that may deprive teachers of the ability to make professional judgments and exercise their professional knowledge. So we face a paradox: in some areas teachers are better prepared than ever, while in schools that serve the greatest numbers of poor and minority children, more and more teachers are underqualified. Due in part to the reforms enacted in response to A Nation at Risk, it is harder than ever to get into a teacher education program. But in many communities, individuals can bypass these requirements altogether and enter the classroom with an emergency credential.

Beginning with the publication of A Nation at Risk, reports began to warn of impending teacher shortages. Due to increases in both student enrollment and teacher retirements, widespread shortages were predicted, particularly in the areas of special education, English as a Second Language, math, and science. At least partly in response to the increasing demand for teachers and fears of teacher shortages, states began to issue emergency credentials and create alternate routes into teaching. In 1996, the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future demonstrated the prevalence of the practice of staffing schools with teachers who did not hold full qualifications in their field. The commission's study reported that as of 1996, "more than 50,000 people who lack the training required for their jobs have entered teaching annually on emergency or substandard license." These numbers have only increased since then. One recent study of California suggests that half of all first-year teachers do not have their credentials when they begin teaching.

A standard response to teacher shortages has always been to ease entry into the profession. Such a response diminishes the need to keep salaries competitive in order to attract promising candidates and provide an incentive for investing in professional preparation. In keeping with this tradition, the Bush administration is calling the entire enterprise of teacher education into question, citing the shortage of qualified teachers. In the 2002 report, "Meeting the Highly Qualified Teacher Challenge," the U.S. Secretary of Education essentially calls for the abolition of professional education as it currently exists. The report concludes that states should cease requiring traditional teacher education. Instead, "states will need to streamline their certification system to focus on the few things that really matter: verbal ability, content knowledge, and, as a safety precaution, a background check of new teachers."

Since one of the hallmarks of a profession is a specialized body of knowledge acquired through professional education, such a proposal strikes at the heart of the claim that teaching be considered a profession. The proposal also ignores research indicating that courses in how to teach a subject contribute more to a teacher's success than additional subject-matter courses. Without professional preparation, prospective teachers forego opportunities to develop knowledge of how to teach reading or math, knowledge of how students develop and learn—all topics that are generally covered in the professional component of the teacher education curriculum.

I recently watched a film entitled The First Year. It highlights the experience of five first-year teachers in Los Angeles. One of the story lines follows a deeply committed young man as he tries to arrange for speech therapy for one of his students. The teacher is shown working individually with the student (one of the few scenes of actual instruction shown in the movie). The teacher patiently tries to get the student to sound out the word two—/t/ /wh/ /oo/. For all his good intentions, energy, and commitment, this teacher, who entered teaching through Teach for America, did not know the difference between phonetically regular words, such as cat or three, which students should be encouraged to sound out, and phonetically irregular words, like two, which are generally taught as high-frequency sight words.

Because teaching reading is complex, courses in teaching reading are required at virtually all accredited teacher education programs. One of the other committed young teachers, another Teach for America member, attended the screening of the movie. Following the film, she was asked what she wished she had known before she entered the classroom. She said she was unprepared to teach reading to the large numbers of her middle school students who were unable to read at grade level. Based on her experience, she had applied to the teacher education program at Mills College and was about to graduate soon after the screening. She proudly announced that she now felt prepared to teach reading to her future students.

A Nation at Risk recognized the need both to raise admission standards for applicants to teacher education programs and to strengthen the quality of the programs themselves. To dismantle university-based teacher education, rather than to invest in the improvement of teachers' professional education and development, would deprive prospective teachers of the opportunity to develop the understanding of how to teach challenging subject matter to all students, a key component of the reform effort. Such a direction would also undermine the effort to make teaching more professional.

Working Conditions

While proposals to ease entry into teaching have been based on claims of teacher shortages, others have argued that the problem is not a shortage of teachers, except in a few areas. Rather, high teacher turnover, particularly in challenging schools, creates the continual demand for new teachers. From this perspective, teacher retention, rather than teacher supply, is the culprit. Retention of new teachers, in turn, is directly linked to the working conditions. In an organizational analysis of teacher shortages, Richard Ingersoll [of the University of Pennsylvania] argues that organizational features of schools help account for higher or lower rates of teacher turnover: "The data show, in particular, that inadequate support from the school administration, student discipline problems, limited faculty input into school decisionmaking, and, to a lesser extent, low salaries are all associated with higher rates of turnover, after controlling for the characteristics of both teachers and schools."

Ingersoll's analysis supports the need to create more supportive working conditions for teachers, which includes allowing teachers to influence decisions that affect their classrooms—a recommendation of A Nation at Risk as well. He suggests that the schools with the highest turnover are least well equipped to support beginning teachers.

A key recommendation of A Nation at Risk was the need to create better working conditions for teachers, conditions that would attract and retain promising candidates into the profession. Such working conditions include competitive salaries, opportunities to engage in professional development, and a voice in decisions that affect their practice. How far have we come in meeting this recommendation?
While there has been some progress in raising teacher salaries over the past two decades, by and large teacher salaries nationwide have not kept up with inflation. A recent report by the National Center for Education Statistics found that, after adjusting for inflation, teachers' salaries actually declined 1 percent between 1990-91 and 2000-01. The pressure to raise salaries has been tempered by the political exigency of hiring teachers who are not fully certified. Partly because of the failure to raise salaries, teaching as a career option continues to compete with other much more lucrative careers that also require a college degree, while standards for entry into the profession are being lowered in response to teacher shortages.

A Nation at Risk also highlighted the need to create more challenging career opportunities for teachers, and many more opportunities for teacher leadership exist today. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards represents only one example of an organization that recognizes teachers' accomplishments. As of mid-2002, the Board had certified 16,044 teachers across the nation. These teachers work intensively to document their classroom practice and prepare portfolios that demonstrate the accomplishments and learning of their students. Across the country, Board-certified teachers have begun to take on positions of leadership in education and to participate actively in school reform, teacher education, and professional development. The accomplishments of these teachers represent the best of the profession, the path we could choose to take in meeting the challenge of finding highly qualified teachers. As a group, they demonstrate how investing in teachers' professional knowledge and development can pay off, not only in the classroom but in the profession as a whole.

Toward the Regulation of Teaching Practice

Due in large part to the confluence of increased accountability measures, including high-stakes standardized assessments and the influx of both new and underqualified teachers into schools, districts around the country have begun to invest heavily in a variety of scripted curriculum materials. Many see this move as contributing to the deskilling of teachers and the deprofessionalization of teaching. Nowhere is this debate more evident than in teachers' responses to district-mandated programs such as Open Court for teaching reading.

According to a recent issue of California Educator devoted to this topic, the Open Court curriculum had been adopted by one in eight elementary schools in California by the year 2000. While there are undoubtedly many strengths in the curriculum as originally designed, with its emphasis on phonemic awareness and support for early decoding skills among beginning readers, it is also highly prescriptive; teachers must follow a set time frame and script for instruction. Teachers have complained that the program robs them of the ability to tailor instruction to their particular group of students. One teacher in Los Angeles, a district that has invested heavily in the program, was told he must stop teaching Shakespeare to his elementary school students in order to teach Open Court, despite the success of his students on reading assessments.

On the one hand, requiring such scripted programs is a logical response to the rising numbers of new and underprepared teachers in the schools. Even well-prepared novices need well-designed curriculum materials to succeed, and new teachers who have little background in the teaching of reading would need even more guidance. But substituting programmed materials for investment in teacher knowledge and judgment is a shortsighted solution to a long-term problem. Such a solution will only further decrease the attractiveness of teaching to kinds of individuals the Department of Education hopes to lure into the classroom with reduced entry requirements. At the other end of the career spectrum, highly accomplished teachers may find themselves increasingly stymied in their efforts to meet the needs of individual children, as was true of the Los Angeles teacher fighting to keep Shakespeare in his curriculum.


An especially troubling consequence of the failure to professionalize teaching is that students in low-income and high-minority schools are much more likely to have less-qualified teachers. In California alone, as of 1999, 11 percent of teachers were on emergency permits or waivers, with the majority of these teachers concentrated in high- poverty districts. Another report on the status of the teaching profession in California found that in schools with the highest percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, 22 percent of teachers were underqualified, while in schools with the lowest percentage of such students, only 6 percent of teachers were underqualified. The New York Regents' Task Force on Teaching reported that 12 percent of teachers in schools with the highest number of minority students were not certified in the field they teach, compared to only 5.4 percent in the schools with the lowest percentage of minority students.

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Twenty years ago, we learned from A Nation at Risk that we were metaphorically at war; 20 years later, teachers are still fighting for professional recognition and respect. At a time when we have more evidence than ever that quality teaching matters enormously to children's futures, we are on the verge of forsaking the hard-won reforms that can lead to better prepared teachers for all students. The crossroad is clearly marked. We can continue to invest in the development of highly qualified and well-prepared teachers and create the incentives and working conditions to keep them in the profession. Or we can once again ease standards for entry into teaching and allow students, primarily those in high-poverty schools who are most in need of high-quality teaching, to be taught by less than qualified teachers. To pursue the latter path would only increase the disparities in educational opportunity and achievement that already exist within our society. The nation, and the teaching profession, remain at risk.

Pam Grossman is a professor at the School of Education, Stanford University.

Excerpted from
A Nation Reformed? American Education 20 Years after A Nation at Risk, edited by David T. Gordon (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2003).

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Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    For Further Information

    Linda Darling-Hammond. Beyond the Commission Reports (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 1984).

    Richard J. Murnane, Judith D. Singer, John D. Willett, James J. Kemple, and Randall J. Olsen. Who Will Teach? Policies That Matter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).

    National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. What Matters Most: Teaching for America's Future (New York: Author, 1996), p. 15.

    Teaching and California's Future: The Status of the Teaching Profession 2001 (Santa Cruz, CA: Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, 2002).

    U.S. Department of Education. Meeting the Highly Qualified Teacher Challenge: The Secretary's Annual Report on Teacher Quality (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2002), p. 40.

    Suzanne M. Wilson, Robert E. Floden, and Joan Ferrini-Mundy. Teacher Preparation Research: Current Knowledge, Gaps, and Recommendations (Seattle: Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington, 2001).

    Richard M. Ingersoll. "Teacher Turnover and Teacher Shortages: An Organizational Analysis." American Education Research Journal 38, no. 3 (2001), 501.

    "Scripted Learning: A Slap in the Face or Blessing from Above?" California Educator, April 2002.

    Hamilton Lankford, Susanna Loeb, and James Wyckoff.  "Teacher Sorting and the Plight of Urban Schools: A Descriptive Analysis," Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 24, no. 1 (2002), 37-62;

    Stephen W. Raudenbush, Randall P. Fotiu, and Yuk Fai Cheong. "Inequality of Access to Educational Resources: A National Report Card in 8th Grade Math." Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 20, no. 4 (1998), 253-267.

    Regents Task Force on Teaching. Teaching to Higher Standards: New York's Commitment (Albany: New York State Department of Education, 1998), p. 10.