• by Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • May 2013 •

Dr. Albert CortezResearchers studying which aspects of education have the most substantial impact on students have long declared that the quality of teaching provided to students is the single most important factor contributing to long-term student success, which includes not only post-high school job performance, but also enrollment in and graduation from college (Darling-Hammond, 1997; Fuller, 1999; Cochran-Smith, 2003). Research also indicates that “quality teaching is more important than a student’s ethnicity, family income, school attended or class size” (Policy Studies Associates, 2005). Despite these findings, not enough has been done at the state or national levels to improve teaching quality, and in some cases ineffective or dysfunctional policies have been created that actually exacerbated the problem (Yuan, et al., 2013).

Looking at the literature about what is needed to improve the quality of teaching in many U.S. schools systems, we do know that high quality preparation of teachers is crucial to producing well qualified educators. This means that colleges and universities that prepare new teachers have needed to update their teacher training processes to include more mentoring and support in the preparation and transition phases. Alternative certification programs – including non-university-sponsored teacher preparation efforts – were created to accelerate the process by re-training professionals choosing to change their career paths. Those programs soon learned that content specialization was not enough and that instruction in pedagogy was critically important for future teacher success.

Research on teacher quality also has examined distribution patterns of quality teaching and discovered that high quality teaching often was not equitably distributed across, or not even within, school districts. Research on Texas schools conducted by Ed Fuller (2010) found that schools with more resources had access to a higher quality teaching pool than those with more limited resources.

On a related note, the Education Trust (2008) conducted its own study on teaching quality distribution across several states. That research found that teaching quality was less than equitable in schools serving inner cities in major urban areas. Follow-up efforts included making local school leaders aware of the existing distribution inequities in the hope that greater awareness of the teaching quality inequity within large school districts would trigger changes in teacher assignment practices.

Examining different states and existing teacher pools, Linda Darling-Hammond found that some states had surplus teachers while others had critical shortages, particularly in specific areas of specialization (2011). In a later study, Darling Hammond (2003) found that inner-city students tended to “receive teaching from staff that had fewer credentials and less experience than peers in low minority, middle-income school systems.” Other researchers cited teacher unions and collective bargaining agreements that advocated for expansive teacher control over assignments as factors impacting teacher placements in districts around the country.

What Reforms Should Be Considered

The research findings on inequitable distribution of teaching quality and the critical role it plays in preparing students for later success in college raises questions of what can be done to ensure equitable access to high quality teaching for all students. Among the options most often cited in the literature are: (1) expanding the pool of well-prepared teachers by providing greater incentives and support for undergraduates to pursue teaching as a career (Cochran-Smith & Power, 2010); (2) improving new teacher preparation by revamping teacher education programs; (3) strengthening professional development for teachers already in the field who can benefit from targeted support (Villarreal & Gonzalez, 2008); (4) changing policies to allow for placing best qualified teachers in highest need schools (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2008; Sawchuck, 2010); and (5) improving teacher compensation to support excellence and persistence (Schacter & Thum, 2004). These options are consistent with IDRA’s Quality School Action Framework, which shows the interrelationship of teaching quality with curriculum quality and access, student engagement, and parent and community engagement along with the fundamentals of fair funding and governance efficacy. The framework deliberately uses the term teaching quality in contrast to teacher quality to go beyond the qualities of an individual and rather to examine the preparation of teachers and their placement in their fields of study as well as teacher instructional practices and administrative support (Grayson, 2009).

Review of research on quality teaching indicates that the more effectively we unbundle what contributes to quality teaching, the more effectively we can target reforms. It also suggests that the inequality in access to teaching quality is not accidental and that any real reforms will require changes in teacher preparation, distribution and school funding systems.


Alliance for Excellent Education. Improving the Distribution of Teachers in Low Performing High Schools, policy brief (Washington, D.C.: Alliance for Excellent Education, April 2008).

Cochran-Smith, M. “Teaching Quality Matters,” Journal of Teacher Education (2003).

Cochran-Smith, Marilyn & Christine Power. “New Direction in Teacher Preparation,” Education Leadership (May 2010).

Darling-Hammond, L. “The Quality of Teaching Matters Most,” Journal of Staff Development (Winter 1997).

Darling-Hammond, L. “Symposium: Access to Quality Teaching: An Analysis of Inequality in California Public Schools,” Santa Clara Law Review (2003).

Darling-Hammond, L. Recruiting and Retaining Teachers: What Matters Most and What Can Government Do? (Stewart, Ohio: The Forum on Education and Democracy, 2011).

Education Trust. Their Fair Share: How Texas Sized Gaps in Teacher Quality Shortchange Minority Children in Texas (Washington, D.C.: Education Trust, February 2008).

Fuller, E.J. Does Teacher Certification Matter? A Comparison of TAAS Performance in 1997 Between Schools with Low and High Percentages of Certified Teachers (Austin: University of Texas at Austin, Charles A. Dana Center, 1999).

Fuller, E.J. Study on the Distribution of Teacher Quality in Texas Schools (Austin, Texas: Association of Texas Professional Educators, Fall 2010).

Grayson, Kristin. “Defining Quality Teaching Beyond the Certificate,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, February, 2009).

Policy Studies Associates. Teacher Quality and Student Achievement: Research Review (Alexandria,Va.: Center for Public Education, November 1, 2005).

Robledo Montecel, M. “Time to Make High School Graduation the New Minimum,” in Courage to Connect: A Quality Schools Action Framework™, Robledo Montecel, M., & C. Goodman (eds) (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2010).

Sawchuk, S. “New Teacher Distribution Methods Hold Promise,” Education Week (June 10, 2010).

Schacter, J., & Y.M. Thum. “Paying For High and Low Quality Teaching,” Economics of Education Review (August 2004).

Villarreal, A., & Gonzalez, J.  “Professional Development.” In Encyclopedia on Bilingual Education, Josue M. Gonzalez (ed.) (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 2008).

Yuan, K., &  L Vi-Nhuan, D.F. McCaffee, J.A. Marsh, L.S. Hamilton, B.M, Stecher, M.G. Springer. “Incentive Pay Programs Do Not Affect Teacher Motivation or Reported Practice: Results from Three Randomized Studies,” Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis (March 2013).

Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is the policy director at IDRA. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at feedback@idra.org.

[©2013, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 2013 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]