Recruitment & Retention Opinion

Raising the Status of Teachers

By Justin Baeder — April 03, 2011 1 min read
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The New York Times ran a Room for Debate feature entitled “How to Raise the Status of Teachers” last week that is an absolute must-read. The various contributors cover most of the current landscape of teacher quality reform efforts, with many intelligent insights. Here are some highlights.

Michael J. Petrilli of Fordham & Hoover:

Today's teacher compensation system is perfectly designed to repel ambitious individuals. We offer mediocre starting salaries, provide meager raises even after hard-earned skills have been gained on the job and backload the most generous benefits (in terms of pensions) toward the end of 30 years of service.

Petrilli argues (echoing Bill Gates and othes) that we should make targeted increases in class size in order to free up funds to pay the best teachers more. For an excellent response to this thinking, see Anthony Cody’s response to Gates.

However, I agree with Petrilli’s assessment of the profession’s appeal as it’s currently structured.

Timothy Daly, president of the New Teacher Project:

The widget effect degrades the teaching profession. If you do a fantastic job in your classroom, you can't expect a fast track up the career ladder or even a pat on the back. You'll get the same formulaic, seniority-based raise each year as the lower-performing teacher down the hall. ... If you're struggling, you can't expect any feedback to help you get better. You'll most likely get a "satisfactory" evaluation rating like 99 percent of your colleagues. After a few years, you'll probably earn tenure, regardless of whether you improve, as will nearly every other teacher. Nobody wants to be a widget. So how can we elevate the status of a profession that refuses to elevate its own best practitioners? How can teachers earn public trust when the public sees such indifference to excellence or failure?


Vern Williams, one of two teachers whose opinion the NY Times sought for this piece:

What we, as teachers, need to do is take back our profession. Most teachers will take to the streets and protest over salaries, pensions and working conditions, but how many teachers would do the same if someone who has never taught their grade level or subject, imposed a new curriculum or demanded that certain pedagogy be followed? Until practicing classroom teachers are allowed to make real decisions regarding curriculum, assessment, textbooks and professional development, the status of teachers will remain low.

I applaud Mr. Williams for making his voice part of the debate, and for calling to action fellow educators who might be hesitant to participate in such discussions.

I take issue with Samuel Culbert of UCLA, who oddly insists that principals are the problem, as if having a boss automatically leads to “sucking up” behaviors that work against what’s best for kids:

whenever you give the boss—the principal—the latitude to pick and choose the best teachers, you're guaranteed to make things worse. The principal will do what any biased boss does: pick the teachers who are best for him or her. By giving principals such authority, you take away the independent voice of the teachers; they'll be parroting whatever they think their principal wants them to do, instead of suggesting improvements that would benefit their students.

I’m not sure what “the teachers who are best for him or her” means, and I can’t think of any other industry in which this “management is bad” logic would be applied. Nor can I envision a scenario in which teachers don’t have any kind of management oversight, just as it wouldn’t work to have principals operating with no oversight.

There’s more, from Kati Haycock and other great minds, but the impression I got after reading all of the essays was this: None of this is rocket science. If we want teaching to be a profession that increases educational opportunity for all students, we need to treat it like a profession.

Kudos to the Times for hosting this forum, and for including two actual teachers (and one principal) in their panel.

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