Current Strategies Won’t Solve Our Teacher Quality Challenges

By 06/03/2010

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In our new report, Opportunity at the Top: How America’s Best Teachers Could Close the Gaps, Raise the Bar, and Keep Our Nation Great, Emily Ayscue Hassel and I asked a simple question:  “Will our nation’s bold efforts to recruit more top teachers and remove the least effective teachers put a great teacher in every classroom?” We ran the numbers and discovered a disappointing answer: No. Even if these reforms were wildly successful, most classrooms still would not have great teachers.

Why does this matter? Only great teachers – those in the top quartile – achieve the student learning progress needed to close our nation’s achievement gaps and raise our bar to internationally competitive levels. Others do not.  Yet in two critical ways we fail to capitalize on the extraordinary resource of great teachers:

We lose too many of the best teachers: Contrary to popular belief, overall teacher turnover is modest compared with other professions. The crisis arises from our failure to keep the best teachers. Approximately 64,000 top-quartile teachers leave teaching every year, diminishing more than a million children’s learning prospects each following year.

We fail to leverage their talent for the benefit of students: The impact of great teachers who stay remains small over their careers. Only 600 students benefit from the instruction of an excellent elementary school teacher even if she stays on the job for 30 years. Our nation’s best teachers reach no more children than the very worst teachers.

If we don’t address these shortcomings, our glaring internal and international achievement gaps will persist, even if every state and district moves forward aggressively to recruit more great teachers and dismiss more ineffective ones.

If we do address them, by building a much more vibrant “opportunity culture” for America’s teachers, nearly 9 in 10 classes could be taught by great teachers in a mere half-decade.  The normal, expected experience of a student could be to have truly great teachers — the kind that today most children have only a few times in a whole school career.

Opportunity at the Top is the first in a series of reports supported by the Joyce Foundation, culminating in a set of recommendations for policymakers and educators about building an opportunity culture for America’s teachers.  Since we’re just getting started, we want to hear the best ideas about how to do that – so click the comment button!

Comment on this article
  • bill says:

    education is a civil-service occupation, not a professional one.

  • melody says:

    Yup, that should work. Let’s turn teaching into a profession where you’ve got a 75% chance of getting canned within 5 years based on … what? Evaluations conducted by wonderful, noble principals and nearly-random fluctuations in test score gains? Oh, yeah, you’ll be suctioning off scads of bright young people who would have otherwise gone into medicine, law, IT, or finance with those incentives. And of course our poorest, inner-city kids can especially benefit from less direct human contact with competent adults.

  • Bill nails it. Whether intellectually honest enough to admit or not, the vast majority of the profession is more interested in the benefits of public employment than in being a class of professionals.

    You can’t be a union drone AND a professional, no matter what the AFT slogan says.

    The best people leave the profession because THE SYSTEM WANTS IT THAT WAY.

    America’s education system will not improve until it is professionalized, which means de-unionized.

    This means that it isn’t an academic debate as much as a pitched political battle. Fight and beat the unions, or spend another 20-30 years publishing policy studies.

    It really is that simple.

  • Bill Mathis says:

    The article is rather vague. Recruiting and keeping good teachers depends upon providing decent working conditions, adequate supplies, support systems and a salary schedule that is competitive enough to keep people — particularly in the cities. Macho solutions of firing teachers sound good but who do you replace them with? Fairy-dust solutions such as teach for America and accountability systems reflect naive thinking more than realistically facing problems.

  • Jess says:

    1. Raise salaries for all teachers, and drop the stupid system of seniority. Pay for performance. And fire based on performance too. Last year our system lost one of its only two decent history teachers because he was the last hired.

    2. ACTUALLY evaluate teachers. Get rid of tenure – if teachers that have been around a long time deserve a fair hearing, so do new teachers. Look at lessons plans and examples of student work. Visit classrooms unexpectedly.

    3. Evaluate administrators too – after five years on the job, our superintendent was unable to give a few-sentence job description.

    4. Accountability. State tests suck, at least in my state. If necessary, find or create other ones. Measure improvement. And there are other obvious measures too – for example, if a certain teacher is out every Monday and most Tuesdays, year after year, and is infrequently on time for class…

    5. Listen to kids. Of course they can be swayed by the teacher being lenient and handing out candy. Some of them. But if they’re saying things like “he’s really good at explaining things I don’t get” or “he doesn’t read our papers” you can probably put some trust in their analysis.

    6. Make it harder to become a teacher. If “teacher” is thought of in the same way as “professor”, you’re going to get some intelligent people who are excited about their subject interested. And MAKE SURE they know their subject matter. Drop some of the ed courses – most of it is common sense. Emphasize practice instead. And make teacher candidates know basic spelling and grammar, especially at the elementary level. Here are some gems from my own school years.
    “Three hundreds = 0.03″
    “Test on Wensday”
    “Book’s we’ll be studying”
    “The Boy’s Team” (EVERYWHERE. WHICH boy?)
    How are children supposed to learn these things when their teachers can’t do them?

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