Books: Excerpts

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Is the teaching profession losing talented individuals to careers that offer more generous compensation? Yes, argues Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard University, in The Cost of Talent. The book examines the rewards and incentives of different professions and finds them often unequal to their contribution to society. In the excerpt below, he looks at steps needed to enhance teaching's attractiveness:

The hard truth is that attracting abler people to ... [teaching] will bring little improvement by itself. A whole series of reforms must be made to give teachers a chance to make real progress in improving the quality of education.

The first essential step is to set standards that define what students are supposed to learn and then to develop the best possible methods for assessing the progress of each school in attaining these objectives. Without such measures, parents will have no reliable way of knowing how well their school is performing, principals and teachers will not know whether their efforts are succeeding, and school authorities will have no way of telling which schools are lagging and need special attention. Of equal importance is the development of curricula and grading methods that employers and admissions committees will respect enough to consider seriously when decid[ing] whom to hire or to admit to college. Only when students feel that the quality of their schoolwork can affect their future will they feel strongly motivated to learn.

Once this framework for evaluation is created, a number of other changes must take place. Having set appropriate goals and standards, higher authorities should leave much discretion to principals and teachers to decide how to achieve the desired ends. Only in the case of schools that are clearly failing to make reasonable progress should superintendents intervene, and then they should act decisively by replacing the principal, supplying added funds, and giving the new leadership power to bring in at least a few new teachers and other key personnel.

School boards should take greater care in choosing principals, and universities should provide much stronger programs to prepare them for educational leadership. Once in office, principals must engage the interest of parents and community leaders, hire the best possible teachers, and support them by protecting them from petty distractions and by supplying them with the resources and opportunities for development that will help them perform effectively. Above all, principals must treat the staff as professionals. Teachers should have more time to meet and discuss their work. As professionals, they should be full participants in deliberations over curriculum, teaching methods, and other questions of academic policy.

Changing the system in this way would do a lot to improve the motivation of teachers simply by attacking many of the obstacles that frustrate them currently. All available evidence suggests that most teachers enter the profession with a genuine desire to help children. Any reforms that empower them to try new methods of instruction, free them from annoying administrative burdens, and allow them to collaborate in seeking educational improvements will help them achieve their personal goals and make their work more rewarding and challenging.

To strengthen motivation further, state officials could consider incentives that offer rewards not to individual teachers who excel but to all the teachers in schools that perform especially well. Incentives of this kind encourage teachers to work together to improve their institution. Instead of competition and rivalry, they foster collaboration and teamwork. South Carolina has already initiated a particularly interesting plan of this type. Schools that succeed in helping their students make exceptional gains in achievement receive a bonus based on the size of their student body. ... An intriguing addition to the plan is a policy of allowing successful schools to free themselves from a number of regulations and reporting requirements. ...

The only danger with incentives of this kind is that the criteria for success may be crudely designed so that teachers neglect more important forms of instruction in their effort to boost test scores and win the desired reward. Fortunately, several states have been working to develop better measures, and some, such as Vermont and California, have made considerable progress. With sufficient care, it should be possible to reward superior schools without undue risk that teachers will alter the content of their classes inappropriately.

If school authorities feel that they must strengthen individual incentives even further, they would do well to avoid merit pay and move instead to create a career ladder that allows teachers who demonstrate sufficient proficiency to move to higher levels of responsibility. Using new methods currently being developed by Lee Shulman and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, principals should be able to judge qualifications for promotion more reliably than they can rate the quality of classroom instruction by each teacher every year under a merit-pay plan. In a well-designed career-ladder program, promotions will bring recognition and carry a higher salary. They will also give welcome variety to teachers' lives. ...

Reprinted with the permission of The Free Press, a division of Macmillan Inc., from The Cost of Talent, by Derek Bok. Copyright 1993 by Derek Bok.

Vol. 13, Issue 20

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