Social scientists have reached consensus around the finding that time spent in a highly qualified teacher’s classroom can accelerate a student’s learning significantly and, conversely, that time spent in the classroom of a low-performing teacher can seriously hinder student progress.The most serious issue facing U.S. public schools is the shortage of highly qualified teachers. To address this problem we need to intervene at each stage of a teacher’s career and at every level of government—local, state and federal.
First, and perhaps most important, we need to be able to recruit the highest performing college students into the teaching profession. The top-performing countries on international examinations all recruit their teachers from the top third of college students. In the United States, fewer than a quarter of prospective teachers place in the top third of their graduating classes. Low starting salaries and lifetime earnings are significant deterrents to attracting high quality graduates into the classroom.
Increasing starting salaries to $65,000 and top salaries to $150,000 for all teachers (as was recently recommended by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan) would cost an estimated $180 billion—a 30% increase in K-12 public education spending that is clearly out of the question in the current economic climate. A more modest program that raised salaries to that level for teachers in hard-to-recruit fields such as maths and science and for teachers who accept positions in low-performing schools could be accomplished for a much smaller investment of under $35 billion. And the upward adjustment of the teacher salary scale could be accompanied by an expansion of the school year, thereby addressing the issue of summer learning loss for low-performing students.
A change of this magnitude is clearly beyond the capacity of state and local governments to finance. One way of accomplishing it would be to double the size of the federal budget for Title I aid to schools enrolling children in poverty (currently $15 billion) and earmarking that aid for supplementing teacher salaries in those schools.
A second step in addressing the shortage of highly qualified teachers is to improve the quality of teacher education programs, tighten the accreditation process for teachers colleges, and to include a year’s “residency” in the classroom as a requirement for all teaching degrees. Teacher preparation programs should emphasise both subject-matter learning and training in classroom practice. Accreditation of teachers colleges is currently carried out by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council—two organisations that will merge to become the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation and begin work in 2013. States should move to require that all teacher education programs undergo accreditation review and that all new teachers graduate from accredited programs. Accreditation should focus not only on the quality of curriculum and instruction, but also on admissions standards, so as to insure a high quality of prospective teachers.
Collaboration should be the watchword once the new teacher is hired and brought on as a new member of the faculty. Mentoring programs should extend through the first two years of a new teacher’s career, and new teachers and their senior colleagues alike should be trained in the practice of building professional learning communities and be provided the time to engage in collaborative work. Expanding mentoring programs is a state responsibility. Encouraging the formation of professional learning communities and arranging schedules to accommodate their work must be accomplished school district by school district.
Evaluating teacher performance is currently a hot-button issue. While many teachers are ready to accept the idea that their performance should be evaluated using information about what their students have learned, most teachers are justifiably unwilling to have their performance judged exclusively on the basis of standardized test scores. Even so-called “value-added” measures—which seem like an obvious approach on the surface—prove to be highly complex and often unreliable in practice. The solution is to supplement student performance data with frequent and careful observation of teachers in their classrooms by both their supervisors and their colleagues. And the traditional bipolar “satisfactory/unsatisfactory” measures of teacher performance must be replaced by a set of nuanced categories that both evaluate current performance levels and provide the teacher with information on how to improve her performance.
Closely related to the issue of evaluation is that of teacher tenure. While often misconstrued by the public as a system under which “you can’t fire a teacher,” tenure has become corrupted by its being granted prematurely, often with little or no basis in performance, and by the accumulation of layers of provisions in teacher contracts that make dismissing a non-performing tenured teacher a lengthy (and costly) process. New York City’s infamous “rubber rooms” where non-performing teachers were warehoused at exorbitant cost to the school district was a worst-case example of the problem. A well-developed and fair system of teacher evaluation, adequate support for low-performing teachers, and a fair but expeditious process of terminating the employment of those unable to improve their performance are appropriate substitutes for tenure as it is now practiced.
Seniority as the basis for compensation and placement has long been seen as a solution to arbitrary treatment of teachers by their supervisors. The “step- and-lane” system of promotion based on time on the job and (often irrelevant) post-graduate academic work, and the last-in-first-out system of handling layoffs when they occur should be replaced by compensation and placement based on performance and need. Merit pay and differential compensation for hard-to-fill positions will greatly enhance the appeal of a career in teaching. Equally important is the construction of a career ladder for teachers that provides them increased responsibility, authority and compensation without requiring them to leave the classroom and become school administrators.
Evaluating teacher performance, modifying the tenure system and supplementing seniority as the basis for compensation and placement are all issues in which teachers unions have a high stake. Critics of the unions assert that they substitute the interests of their members for the interests of the children they serve and take it as their responsibility to protect the least competent as well as the most competent of their members. Others point to the fact that the so-called “new unionism,” first embraced by both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association more than a decade ago, calls for collaboration with districts and states in improving the teaching profession. The current teachers’ contract in New Haven and the recently-passed Senate Bill 7 in Illinois are two successful examples of this collaboration that have begun to address the sensitive issues of evaluation, compensation, tenure and seniority. Federal funds granted on a competitive basis—such as was the case with Race to the Top—should be used to incentivise these collaborations.
There are other interventions that can serve to enhance the quality of the teaching force as well. Programs like Teach for America have been remarkably successful in attracting very highly qualified college graduates into teaching. Although many volunteers leave after their required two years of service, the organisations point out that a high proportion of their alumni remain in the field of public education if not in the classroom itself. Other programs recruit mid-career professionals into the classroom providing them with alternate routes to certification. Both these avenues for augmenting the teaching profession presuppose that teaching may be a relatively short-term rather than a career-long option. This has the disadvantage of introducing discontinuity into school communities. It has the advantage of introducing new blood into the profession and avoiding the burnout often brought on by the heavy demands of work in a classroom.
A pair of McKenzie & Company reports published in 2009 and 2010 provided evidence of the loss in gross national product caused by the glaring achievement gap in student performance in America, and suggested that the cost of addressing the problem of the shortage of high quality teachers would be offset by the contribution that high performing teachers could make to closing the achievement gap and increasing the nation’s productivity.
Improving public schooling in the United States begins by ensuring that there is a high quality teacher in every classroom.
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