The GREAT Teachers & Principals Act will (not) fix our teachers | Ecology of Education

The GREAT Teachers & Principals Act will (not) fix our teachers

Kenneth Zeichner recently wrote an article for The Answer Sheet at the Washington Post detailing why the GRowing Excellent Achievement Training Academies (GREAT) Teachers and Principals Act, which is currently under discussion in Congress, is not so great.  He notes that, if passed, this “would establish state-based competitive grant programs to create charter teacher and principal preparation programs called academies that would free of many of the state regulations that are used to monitor the quality of traditional preparation programs.”  Basically, teacher education would now include a deregulated, free market charter model.  Zeichner points out some of his concerns about this potential model, and I am writing this to share my own thoughts about teacher education.

My first thought is that the idea that a free market model will fix education is not new, and it is one that is fraught with problems.  First is that we currently have a free market model for recruiting and retaining teachers.  In this current model, there are few incentives to attract the best and brightest into the field: long hours, high stress, little pay, and no respect.  On top of this, teachers are expected to pay for supplies out of their own pockets and to pay for and attend required professional development activities on their own time.  Why would someone who is at the top of their graduating high school class and has many career options become a teacher?

In fact, I distinctly recall my high school guidance counselor trying to convince me not to become a teacher.  She told me teaching would be a “waste of my talent” and told me I should become an engineer.  Although I do not recall my actual rank, I was in the top quarter of my class.  She obviously felt the need to steer me onto another path that would make better use of my abilities.  Which begs the question, when top students are systematically funneled into other careers, how can you attract and retain the best and brightest in teaching, where they are so desperately needed?

Understand, I am not opposed to raising standards to enter the teaching profession.  I am all for it; teachers need to be strong in both academics and pedagogy.  I just do not believe that raising standards is enough to attract the most desired people to the profession – not when other professions offer more rewards.  If we raise standards for admission to the profession, there needs to be a similar increase in working conditions and teacher salary in order to compete with other career options.  Otherwise , the teacher shortage will just be exacerbated as we have fewer people eligible to join the profession and continue to attract low numbers of the top performers.

In a free market, people pay for the things that are valued, and they do not pay for the things that are not.  Then the things that are valued grow and flourish while the things that are not valued wither and die.  Let’s do a little analysis to illustrate the point.  Since the top performers have many career options open to them, we will explore what to expect upon graduation for teaching versus some other professions.  Teachers earn an average of $55,000 per year.  That is the low-end of lawyer pay, which ranges from $54,000 to $187,000 (and averages $113,000).  Average doctor pay is even higher at $221,000.  In 2013, the starting pay for an entry-level engineer ranged from $68,000 to $93,000; well above what the average teacher earns.   A 2010 report of market research conducted by McKinsey & Company found that in order to attract the top-third of students into teaching (from a current market share of 14% to 68% in high poverty schools), teacher salaries would need to increase substantially.

This is just the tangible aspect of recruiting and retaining high quality teachers.  There are many intangible aspects as well: belittlement of their work by politicians, micromanagement by administrators, reduction of autonomy, and elimination of professionalism are just a few.  In his article at the Huffington Post, Randy Turner discourages young people from considering teaching, and he lays out how teaching is becoming deprofessionalized.  When pay is tied to test scores and the curriculum is narrowed to focus solely on math and reading (only as they pertain to the tests), there is no more profession.  When teacher tenure is eliminated, teachers no longer feel that they can stand up to the bullying of their administrators, who are only focused on test scores, because they know they can be fired at any time for any reason.

If we really want GREAT Teachers and Principals, here is my proposal:

  1. Provide incentives that encourage high-performing students to want to become teachers.  This includes raising salaries and improving the working conditions of teachers.  Working conditions include appropriate class sizes so that more time can be devoted to individual students, adequate time to prepare quality lessons, autonomy to carry out their duties in a professional fashion, and job security so that teachers can raise moral and ethical objections without fear of retribution.
  2. Give teachers the supports they need to continue honing their craft.  Teaching is part science and part art; there is no magical formula that works for every teacher.  However, our understandings of what makes great teaching and learning changes regularly, and teachers need to be given the space to do so.
  3. Stop allowing unqualified people to receive “emergency teaching licenses” or to be labeled as “highly qualified.”  Teaching is not something that just anyone can do, and it cannot be learned in less than two months.  It is a profession that requires years of study and practice to become truly effective.
  4. Expand opportunities for teacher preparation programs and schools to forge connections that support higher quantity and quality internships for aspiring teachers.
  5. Recognize that learning goes beyond test scores.  Some of the best teachers may not impact immediate test scores, but they influence a child’s life so profoundly that it makes a difference in that child’s future.  It could be that personal connection that keeps the child out of jail, or prevents the child from committing suicide, offers a sense of personal worth – things that are not easily measurable.

Great teachers know that a child is more than a test score, and they refuse to treat their children as robots.  It’s time that our politicians and bureaucrats recognize this as well.

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