Building a Powerful Team of Teachers For the Nation’s Big-City Schools

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The weakest and least charismatic teacher candidates usually end up where the need for excellence is greatest: in the big cities.

The decline of schools in the urban centers of America continues, and a national call to arms is being sounded. Solutions are being offered in the form of vouchers, charters, smaller class sizes, higher standards, and even home schooling. Reform superintendents are guaranteeing higher test scores to placate the politicians and the local school boards. Even more distressing, promises of higher test scores are being described as the delivery of better education.

If these big-city schools continue to fail in their mission, the very fabric of American society will suffer. And the public understands this. In last year’s Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll on education, an amazing 86 percent of respondents viewed the improvement of inner- city schools as "very important." Sixty-six percent said they would be willing to pay more taxes to improve these troubled schools. But in trying to accomplish that goal, we have run into the same dead ends, year after year. It is not politically astute for some governors or local officials to be identified with tax increases. And yet, many of these elected officials will still take pride in being identified as "education" governors or mayors.

When we discuss the urban education scene, a stark reality becomes evident: One teacher vacancy in suburbia may generate hundreds of applications; 100 vacancies in a big-city school system will attract maybe 20, many of those having been rejected by suburban districts. And the city schools will consider themselves fortunate if 10 of the applicants are deemed to be highly qualified. These figures are general, of course, but they capture the essence of a trend that has been operating for years. Clearly, the deck is stacked against the big cities when it comes to teacher-hiring pools.

Yet educational excellence in almost every school is a function of outstanding classroom teachers. We do not have an adequate supply of teachers; we find that too many of those going into the profession don’t represent our country’s best and brightest; and, most serious of all, the weakest and least charismatic candidates usually end up where the need for excellence is greatest: in the big cities.

This, in my view, is the major problem facing education in the big cities of America: an inadequate supply of bright, well-trained, highly motivated teachers operating with the guidance and direction of superior principals.

Several forceful actions must be engineered on a national scale to bring a new sense of mission and possibility to the education of inner-city students. The suggestions I offer for a corrected course in urban education are bold and may be viewed by some as controversial. Their main elements can be headlined as dramatic changes in remuneration, a shift in public perceptions about teaching in the inner cities, and a more pragmatic internship model for teacher training, based on medical education. The teachers coming into urban schools under this plan would have had intensive— and successful—inner-city teaching experience. Well-paid, respected, and highly trained, they would become the most formidable team of teachers ever to be unleashed for the most needy student populations in America.

•The incentive package. A public consensus that teaching is a valued profession must be integral to any new era for urban schools. But this vision of enhanced prestige will become a reality only when a solid financial package is offered to draw the best and the brightest into the classroom. For inner-city teaching, a starting salary of $50,000 would capture the attention of many new candidates—especially if they knew that they could conceivably attain a salary of about $90,000 within 10 years. Other incentives, such as bonuses and targeted improvements in working conditions, could enhance the attractiveness of this opportunity and narrow the competitive gap that has long favored privileged suburban schools in the teaching-job market.

•The marketing campaign. With current public perceptions about teaching as a profession, what parents would encourage their child to go into it—and, especially, to teach in a large city’s school system? In nations such as Finland, by comparison, parents are honored to have their children become teachers. We need to give our young people the same kind of inspiration to aspire to teaching that the Finns have—and that we once did. It has taken many years for the respect and dignity Americans once accorded to teachers to erode. It may take years, and surely will take perseverence, to build it back.

We should initiate a concerted, three- to five-year national campaign aimed at re-establishing those earlier public attitudes about the value of teaching and, in particular, we should aim to raise the prestige of urban teaching by showing its vital importance to the nation. Americans have proved they have the know- how to sell almost any product. Surely, we can use these marketing skills to redefine teaching in the inner cities as the noble undertaking it is and the desired profession it should be.This nationally funded assignment would involve our most powerful opinion molders—Madison Avenue advertising agencies, Internet providers, print-media and broadcasting executives, Hollywood’s creative design people, and even the political "spin doctors" so adept at putting across messages.

Other appropriate organizations and individuals would be called upon to establish the strategies needed to guarantee success for this national campaign. From these efforts would come a broadened pool of competing candidates. Teachers’ organizations would be asked to contribute to the campaign by actively encouraging and inspiring their most promising students to pursue a teaching career.

•National and state teacher academies. The last leg of this search—to develop a critical mass of urban teacher-leaders—would involve the creation of a system of national and state teaching academies. These would borrow heavily from the service-academy model, with their students accepted for appointment on a highly selective, competitive basis. Students’ on-site training would be comparable to a physician’s internship, with highly skilled urban teaching professionals overseeing a day-to-day teaching schedule. The power of this movement could capture the imagination of the country. A blend of academic excellence with a pragmatic internship at the very schools where students will eventually teach is only a part of the drama of this new approach.

The academies also would be expected to guide and enrich the leadership contributions of school principals. Both experience and research show that outstanding principals usually are a key factor in successful urban schools. The academies, then, would be communities where hands-on teaching and learning under the guidance of successful on-site teachers were part of the daily routine. Subject-area competency, academic rigor, an understanding of students from all backgrounds, creative problem-solving, strong communication skills, mutual respect, and an orderly environment would be the fruits of this on-site academy experience.

Departure from the use of teacher-preparation programs, where professors themselves often do not know how to teach inner-city children, is an urgent necessity.

Urban teacher academies would replace most of the existing college-based preparation programs. The academies’ professional staffs, composed mainly of practitioner experts who had been successful in big-city schools, would include only the most dynamic college professors, those with a record of outstanding teacher preparation and the enhancement of intellectual curiosity. These individuals would teach their charges on site at the inner-city schools. In this way, teacher-candidates chosen on the basis of outstanding high school records and personal attributes would have their academic and pedagogical skills further sharpened at the schools where they eventually would be assigned.

This departure from the use of teacher-preparation programs, where professors themselves often do not know how to teach inner-city children, is an urgent necessity. The monopoly of state certification programs that have failed to deliver competent, qualified, and dynamic teachers for the urban schools of our country must be curtailed.

We are likely to feel the impact of such changes in from three to five years, especially if the packaging of perks encourages this new breed of teachers to remain at the schools that hire them for at least five years.

This is the plan. Put together a financial-incentive program that will bring the best and the brightest into teaching, and direct this new pool of teachers into the most needy urban centers of America. Prepare this new group of prospective educators by using the service-academy appointment process. Train these teachers-to-be by using rigorous approaches that can be modeled by urban-teaching "superstars" who have persevered and succeeded in difficult schools. Provide most of the students’ training in the form of internships at the local schools where their appointments will be made.

Knowing the students, the school culture, the parents, and the procedures, these new teachers would be helped throughout their first few years in the classroom, and would eventually become the teachers of the next generation of teachers.

Should politics, monopolies, and institutional racism prevail, none of these ideas will become a reality. We will continue, as we have, to seek patchwork solutions for the teacher shortage and watch the big cities implode. Reversing long-standing negative trends and rescuing urban schools will depend on the coordinated implementation of suggestions such as those I have offered. It is a matter of national importance.

Leonard B. Finkelstein is the president of LBF Management Research in Huntington Valley, Pa. He has been a superintendent of schools in both urban and suburban districts in the state.

Vol. 19, Issue 15, Pages 29, 31

Published in Print: December 8, 1999, as Building a Powerful Team of Teachers For the Nation’s Big-City Schools
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