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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Professionalizing Teaching: What Charters Teach Us, And What They Don’t

By Guest Blogger — May 09, 2014 4 min read
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Note: Karen Hawley Miles, president of Education Resource Strategies, is guest posting this week.

This week, I’ve looked at what we can learn from the charter movement to scale up promising practices in urban school districts. On Monday, I talked about fixing district funding. On Wednesday, I discussed the importance of freeing and supporting school leaders in urban districts to create strategic school designs that organize talent, time, and technology to better respond to both students and adults.

Today, I’ll conclude with the most important piece of the strategic school puzzle: the teacher. It’s National Teacher Appreciation Week, so it makes sense to end this week with a focus on how we can improve the profession.

Here, charter schools offer us a mixed bag. On the one hand, some charters have implemented innovations like extended time for students and teachers. High-performing charters such as KIPP, Achievement First, and Uncommon Schools have notably longer school years--1500-1700 hours versus the national average of 1200. In addition to providing much needed learning time for urban students, these schools also add extra time for more teacher collaboration, to figure out how to reach higher standards, share work load, and adjust instruction in response to student progress.

But on the other hand, most charter schools have simply added time to the teacher work year without changing the structure of the teaching job or increasing compensation. This leads to high-stress environments associated with high teacher turnover and sometimes low satisfaction ratings. Many high-performing charters rely on a stream of idealistic young people willing to devote themselves to teaching--but only for a few years. This is not a sustainable system.

How can we reap the benefits of extended learning time for students and teachers, while supporting and rewarding teachers as the professionals that they are? And how can we implement scalable and sustainable reforms in both charters and traditional school districts?

Expanding the teacher “value proposition”

We need a new approach to teacher compensation and job structure that considers the entire “value proposition": the complete set of offerings and experiences provided by a school system to teachers. This holistic approach doesn’t just focus on raising salaries for teachers, but on other aspects of teachers’ careers such as professional growth and recognition, opportunities for teamwork, timing of the school day, differentiated roles and assignments, and work-life balance. This might mean:

Compensation and career path: Higher compensation earlier in the career trajectory for those teachers who demonstrate effectiveness, and systematic opportunities to increase salary and responsibility over a teacher’s career.
Job structure and teaming: The school day could be longer, but structured to provide more breaks, opportunities for collaboration and reflection, and planning and teaching in teams. New teachers might have lower student loads and significant support from other teachers who observe them. Secondary school teachers who teach core subjects might have lower loads as well or restructured jobs that employ technology and other support to handle large workloads. Teachers would work in teams, deliberately assembled to leverage and grow expertise while sharing work.

Reaching these kinds of goals in a large urban district requires sweeping and reinforcing changes to district and state regulations, long entrenched teacher contracts, and plain old tradition-all of which can seem daunting, if not unsurmountable. The first step, however, is to stop seeing the teaching job through the “industrial” lens, and start seeing it through the “professional” lens. When faced with the proposal of a longer work day, many unions ask for hourly “overtime” pay. This likens teachers to factory-line workers. Instead, we should increase base salaries and lengthen the “official” work day and year--but in ways that actually allow teachers to accomplish more by leveraging the collective. Time for team planning, staggered schedules, expert coaching--all of these are possible in this framework.

Charters can move much more nimbly to pilot these new arrangements, and in that way continue to provide proof points for districts to try later. Aspire Public Schools has a longer school day and year, but has restructured the job of teaching. All teachers have significant time to work together each day. Teachers work in teams led by carefully selected teacher leaders who receive ongoing professional development and extra compensation as well as more release time.

Traditional school districts can also take steps toward overhauling their compensation and career path now. A growing number of districts--Baltimore City; Hillsborough County, Florida; and Washington, DC--have made important changes to their compensation structures. These districts have reduced or eliminated years of experience and course credits as criteria for salary advancement, in order to raise salaries for effective teachers earlier and create attractive and varied roles that involve more responsibility, greater challenge, or deeper expertise.

Taken as a whole, the charter movement has been fruitful--it has provided us with new models for, as well as cautionary tales about, excellent schools. Now it’s time to take the extraordinary energy we have invested in a few schools, and transform every urban school system to ensure all students succeed.

--Karen Hawley Miles

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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