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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

What Do Teachers Want?

By Jeffrey R. Henig — July 25, 2011 4 min read
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Note: Jeff Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, is guest-posting this week.

A bit over ten years ago (December 2000), Mel Gibson--not yet the semi-pariah he’s become due to his high profile breakdowns--starred in the movie “What Women Want.” The premise was that men and women were so alien from one another and so unlikely to communicate honestly and directly that it takes a freak accident (giving Gibson’s character the ability to hear women’s thoughts) for any kind of real cross-gender understanding to develop.

I think about this sometimes when I listen to the debate about the teaching profession and the need to attract and hold top quality educators. In one sense there is no debate. Both sides say they believe good teachers are hugely important. But there are sharp differences in the vision of what should be done in order to get good teachers into the classroom and entice them to stay. One side sees alternative certification, merit pay, and value-added accountability as part of what’s needed to refurbish the field. From this perspective, traditional certification requirements, pay scales based on seniority and graduate classes completed, and lack of incentives to work harder and more effectively have combined to dissuade the best and brightest from going into teaching. They point to Teach for America and other alternative certification pathways as evidence in their support. The other side argues that this view is short-sighted--that the new reforms might entice bright young people to teach for a couple of years while they figure out their next career step, but that the high-pressure accountability frameworks create an inhospitable work environment, undermining the sense of professionalism that previously sustained teachers.

Surprisingly, teachers’ voices currently are not a central element in assessing these hypothetical assertions about how abstract systems of incentives will translate into actual behavior. Wouldn’t it make sense to find out what teachers think about how various reform initiatives bear upon their sense of accomplishment, pride, and long-term commitment to the field?

One reason their voices are not central to the policy debate is a fundamental mistrust of what teachers--and especially the unions that represent them--say. Earlier this month, Dennis Van Roekel, the NEA president, called the current situation “the worst environment for teachers I’ve ever seen.” But what else would he say? With teachers’ traditional zone of professional autonomy being eroded, tenure rules tightened, and retirement packages squeezed, can we imagine a union leader saying “sure, but all in all it’s still a great job”? For an example of the skeptical response induced by union leaders’ pronouncements, see “Same Old, Same Old” an education journalist’s commentary in Education Next.

But looking to newly sprouted organizations that claim to better represent the views of young teachers not yet imbued with a union mindset is not the answer either. Two prominent examples, Educators 4 Excellence and Teach Plus, are heavily supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has made the funding of advocacy voices, and the creation of new ones, a key part of its strategy for promoting its vision of school reform. When these groups proclaim that new teachers--at least the good ones--thrive under test-based accountability regimes, is their voice any more credible on its face than that of the NEA and AFT?

The fact that it is hard to know what teachers want and need doesn’t make doing it any less important. Teach for America, KIPP, and other high profile organizations have shown that it is possible to draw large numbers of bright and well-educated young people who are willing to work longer days, longer weeks, and longer years, at least in the economic environment of the past decade. But high levels of burn-out are apparent and may be endemic to the model. And it’s not at all clear that the flow will continue when the economy kicks back into gear, other job options expand, and the next wave of enthusiasm for a different way for sincere young people to show their idealism displaces teaching in inner-city schools. Trimming the medical and retirement benefits that reward longevity, whether done in order to raise starting salaries or simply to reduce costs, similarly rests on the premise that there is a deep and nearly inexhaustible well of young talent that will fuel the school systems of the future once artificial obstacles are swept aside.

Is it true that the new reform models will hit the sweet spot of weeding out the poor teachers and raising the status and satisfaction of the good ones? Absent a Hollywood-style solution, is there a viable and reliable method to discover what teachers really want? Given the high stakes and the real risk of getting this wrong, I think it’s worth spending more time and thought on the effort.

--Jeff Henig

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.