TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

Connect the Dots: States’ priorities, policies, and practices impact student outcomes

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A friend called last week to tell me about her son's early weeks of kindergarten. He loves his teacher, she reported. Yet she was puzzled by the assignments she saw in his backpack. Last week, for example, her child was asked to complete a "connect the dots" worksheet with the numbers one through five. She was perplexed: "Heather, he already knows his numbers up to 50! This seems like a waste of time!"

While I hope this is a one-off activity easing children into the new school year, I fear it may illustrate a lack of strategy on how to help students make up lost ground in mathematics. State policy plays a huge role in setting a vision, but for policymakers in 2023, math instruction is barely in the periphery. To really connect the dots and make an impact, states need to simultaneously prioritize teacher quality and learning outcomes.

Today, the National Council on Teacher Quality published the results of a new survey: Top five state priorities for education leaders, researchers, and advocates.* From these results we learned that while states have to balance many competing education priorities, very few state education leaders rank elementary math as a top priority over the next three years–only 8% of respondents put it in their top five.

This is surprising, given that math achievement dropped more steeply than reading achievement in the past few years. If education leaders, researchers, and advocates aren't prioritizing math, our students' chances for a recovery (let alone advancement) are slim.

Elementary math wasn't the only concern from the results. Students with disabilities and English language learners also sit near the bottom of the priority list. Only 7% of state leaders set supporting students with disabilities as a priority and only 8% highlighted English language learners. This seems especially mystifying, given that 7 million children receive special education services across the nation, and nearly five million children are English learners. Reading and math results show that these students need additional support to access and master grade-level content.

Teacher layoffs also ranked as a low priority (only 2% of respondents identified it as a top priority). This seems to overlook impending fiscal cliffs when ESSER funds soon run out and patterns of declining student enrollment–both of which may compel districts to make staffing cuts. Indeed, some districts (e.g., Brockton, MA, parts of Washington state) are already in that position and may represent the canary in the coal mine. Layoff policies may also threaten the priority of diversifying the teacher workforce. Teachers of color tend to be more prevalent in the ranks of newer teachers. If states and districts don't tackle the still-prevalent "last-in, first-out" layoff policies, teachers of color will disproportionately be the "first out" in many states.

Top Five State Priorities
So what are state education leaders, researchers, and advocates ranking as their top five priorities?
  1. Teacher retention (48% of respondents said this is one of their top five priorities over the next three years)
  2. Teacher recruitment and hiring (43%)
  3. Diversifying the teacher workforce (32%)
  4. Scientifically-based reading instruction (30%)
  5. Improving teacher preparation (29%)
We were not surprised by the focus on recruiting, hiring, and keeping a diverse teacher workforce. Thirty states have recently passed laws to promote scientifically-based reading instruction, so this seemed like a natural focus as states turn to implementing the new laws. We were pleased to see teacher prep highlighted as a priority. As we've said before: teacher prep matters. Because prep programs are still inconsistent in their attention to core areas like reading and mathematics, state education leaders must include teacher prep as a cornerstone of improving instruction and student outcomes.

State education leaders are making tough choices with limited resources, and it may seem too easy for me to criticize from the sidelines. But when we make decisions about where to put our resources, we have to ask what–or who–are we short-changing?

We challenge state leaders to use this information to examine their own priorities and to do more to connect the dots. States can build an effective and diverse teacher workforce and also improve academic outcomes for all students, including students most in need of support. Prioritizing teacher quality goes hand-in-hand with a focus on supporting student learning.

Want to know more? If you're interested in learning more about what state education leaders said about their priorities, the policy actions they thought would be most effective, or about the survey methodology, check out our latest brief.

*NCTQ sent the survey to 2,230 people and we received 181 responses from 44 states and D.C.