FRANKFORT, Ky. – State Education Commissioner Terry Holliday is concerned about the quality of classroom instruction, especially in Appalachian Kentucky, and he’s ready to shake things up, challenging teachers’ colleges and local education leaders.
Eastern Kentucky colleges are producing too many teachers, and the region’s districts are hiring too many of them, perpetuating low expectations he says too many educators have for their students, Holliday said in an interview.
“Admissions standards are too low” for would-be teachers, he said, citing a report from the global consultancy McKinsey & Co., which found that the world’s best school systems “recruit 100 percent of their teacher corps from the top third of the academic cohort." Holliday says, “We recruit from the bottom third right now.”
Cathy Gunn, dean of education at Morehead State University, says she agrees that the teacher pipeline needs to be “improved and narrowed,” but denies Morehead is recruiting from the bottom third – at least intentionally. She says Morehead recruits “any student who is interested in becoming a teacher, no matter where they are in their graduate ranking,” as long as they meet the minimum requirements.
Before Holliday came to Kentucky three years ago , he was a district superintendent in North Carolina. He said there were colleges in that state “that we just wouldn’t hire from because they just weren’t prepared. That’s happening to some degree in Kentucky."
If graduates continue to perform poorly or cannot meet the new, tougher requirements of the state Educational Professional Standards Board, he said some of the education schools will likely have to be closed. Teaching has changed. Decades ago, it was a primary job choice for many talented women and minorities who lacked other opportunities. Today, lucrative and prestigious fields such as law and medicine have opened up their doors, while teaching has lagged behind both in pay and prestige. The McKinsey report found low admission standards make it difficult for teaching to be seen as prestigious, and “McKinsey is right on target there,” Holliday said.
Encouraging better students to become teachers may be most urgent in Appalachian Kentucky. A recent study by Dr. Eugenia Toma at the University of Kentucky’s Martin School of Public Policy showed that Kentucky teachers who choose to work in Appalachian schools for their first jobs are less academically qualified than their peers who choose to teach in other parts of the state. Toma’s paper is based on data collected by the Educational Professional Standards Board that tracked more than 21,000 Kentucky teachers from 1987 to the present.
Holliday's worry is that the low quality of teachers exacerbates some Appalachian educators’ low expectations for their students – or even their desires for them.
“I’ve heard this more than once now, that you might not wantthese kids to get a good education because then they’ll leave,” creating “less ability to fund the local county government,” he says. That kind of thinking “leads to low expectations for education,” he says, creating a “vicious cycle.”
Holliday said some eastern districts “only hire from certain universities and they only hire people from Eastern Kentucky backgrounds.” A joint report by his Department of Education and other state education authorities found that 43 percent of Kentucky districts employed more than half of their teachers from the same teacher-preparation institution, usually one nearby (see map).
“People are sometimes afraid of hiring outsiders,” Holliday said, but in doing so they miss out on many qualified candidates and diversity in the classroom, which can help prepare students for the wider world.
These issues are most important in rural areas, which Holliday says lack many of the amenities needed to attract talented teachers: “In urban areas, you have places for these young, upwardly mobile teachers to live. In rural areas, you don’t have anywhere for them to live, you don’t have social activities, or any of the things that these young 20-somethings apparently really like,” Holliday says, playfully acknowledging his middle age.
Holliday says reforming teacher education won’t be easy because colleges have a financial interest in keeping class sizes high and admissions standards low. “The highest profit margin for universities is teacher education,” he said. “You’ve got large class sizes, very low cost for professors.” As the state’s public universities deal with budget cuts, “we’re gonna be pushing the presidents and the deans on this to improve candidate quality going into these programs.”
Eastern Kentucky University’s education dean, Bill Phillips, says he “completely agrees with Dr. Holliday” that standards need to be raised, but says state funding cuts force EKU to be “tuition-driven.” Raising standards lowers enrollment, and with it, tuition revenue, but Phillips says EKU has “made the decision to raise standards and to just take the hit on tuition.”
Holliday was interviewed for a report on the entry of Teach for America into Appalachian Kentucky. He said TFA, which he says recruits from the “top 10 percent of the top 10 percent” of college students, is putting pressure on the traditional teacher preparation and certification programs in the state: “Any time you challenge the status quo – ‘the man’ – any time you challenge the man, you’re gonna put pressure on them and get pushback.”