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Teaching Profession Opinion

A Quid Pro Quo For Teacher Quality

By James B. Hunt Jr. — June 16, 2004 8 min read
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Teaching is the profession that makes all other professions possible.

Seven years ago, the nation got its first-ever school report card, which uncovered a dismal lack of incentives to improve teacher quality. Education Week’s Quality Counts 1997 state-policy report found that just a handful of states offered specific initiatives for that purpose, generally rewarding teachers who reached the highest level of achievement—becoming certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Just a few states were then looking for new ways to bring career-changers into the classroom, through alternative-certification programs.

Today, according to Quality Counts 2004, those incentive policies are commonplace. That’s the good news. The bad news is that teaching remains a profession with a disturbing lack of clarity around the skill sets necessary to be effective, few avenues to gain those skills, and little way to acknowledge who has them. For instance, becoming a teacher requires a different set of entry skills from state to state. There are no clear opportunities for professional growth or mentoring once one becomes a teacher, and, almost across the board, pay is based on time in the system rather than individual achievement.

In each of these areas, state policies are not keeping pace with needs. In teaching, as in no other profession, supply and demand determine entry requirements. With the threat of teacher shortages, some school districts and state departments of education have lowered the standards for becoming a teacher. This “warm body is better than nobody” theory seems reasonable to many, but is it? Of course not—the outcome of poor teaching has been and will continue to be devastating to our children. And I firmly believe that raising standards for teachers will, in the long run, attract more people into the profession.

But how do we attract and retain more quality teachers in our public schools? This question is addressed squarely with a set of strategic recommendations in a recent report prepared by the Teaching Commission, a bipartisan, blue-ribbon panel of 19 leaders from institutions of business, government, education, and philanthropy, founded and led by former IBM Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Louis V. Gerstner Jr. and on which I serve as a member.

The Teaching Commission’s report, “Teaching at Risk: A Call to Action,” builds on the work of two decades of studies by national groups and draws attention to what remains to be done after 20 years. It offers some common-sense solutions to encourage school leaders, union officials, lawmakers, and others to cut through the politics and long-standing controversies and focus on what we all must do together to strengthen schools and benefit 50 million young people.

This attention comes none too soon. In the area of mentoring new teachers, we’re actually losing ground. Quality Counts 1997 reported that 16 states were requiring and funding induction programs for all new teachers. Seven years later, despite study after study recognizing the importance of mentoring in order to retain young talent in the classroom, only 15 states do so. Though focused and effective professional-development programs exist in many of our schools, scheduling and staffing barriers often prevent teachers from gaining new skills and knowledge from their more experienced peers.

At the heart of the Teaching Commission report is the direction that we must develop a fair and equitable process to reward those teachers who consistently demonstrate outstanding effort and achievement. A system that does not reward high performance is unlikely to inspire it. A system that does not share and encourage greater responsibility among its practitioners will not achieve its full potential. Performance-based compensation should be at the center of school improvement efforts to connect teaching with student learning. But because of an inability to come to grips with the politics of teacher pay, it has been left out of the discussion altogether.

In many ways, the outcome of the nation’s effort to demonstrate results for every child will depend on how well we can answer one crucial question: How can we ensure that teachers will be part of the accountability movement to maximize student and school performance and their own professional satisfaction? If we are to be fair, we must ask what “carrot” we are offering, when so much of the new accountability movement emphasizes the “stick.”

For starters, the nation must overcome the disconnect between K-12 and higher education. Higher education leaders must share responsibility for improving public education. They have allowed our colleges of education to become sleepy backwaters on university campuses. The contrast between our nation’s rigorous and academically challenging colleges of medicine and engineering and our colleges of education could not be more striking. Higher education may soon face new demands by Congress to link federal funds for teacher education programs to measures of success for graduates of these programs. This may not be such a bad thing.

Second, the pool of potential teachers will only get better with a sustained commitment to excellence, and that will require an updated compensation system. The labor market of the 1960s and ’70s maintained a standard of teacher quality in large part because there were so few other opportunities for women. Lockstep salary schemes based on time in the classroom and level of education simply can’t compete when measured against today’s many career options.

We need a new pay-for-performance system of compensation based on student achievement and expertise. We need a system that rewards teachers who mentor others, or teach in difficult schools or in shortage specialties such as math or science, and we need a system that recognizes the less concrete, measurable determinants that affect teaching, such as collaboration and classroom reality.

We must develop a fair and equitable process to reward those teachers who consistently demonstrate outstanding effort and achievement.

The Teaching Commission proposes an ambitious bargain: Our nation once and for all steps up to raising teacher pay, but that we do it in return for commensurate increases in quality and accountability based on student achievement—a value-based quid pro quo that’s virtually unheard of in today’s classrooms.

This suggestion is not pie in the sky. It is based on evidence and experience that incentive pay really works. In Chattanooga, Tenn., for example, the school district launched an effort to improve student performance in nine low-performing schools. It began by attracting highly skilled teachers with incentives like a $5,000 yearly bonus, free tuition toward a master’s degree, and a $10,000 down payment on a house. Every school saw increases in the proportion of 3rd graders reading at or above grade level.

A recent study of Tennessee students revealed that the chances for 4th graders in the bottom quartile to pass the state’s high-stakes exit exam at the 9th grade were less than 15 percent for students who had a series of poor teachers. The chances for students from the same background who had a series of good teachers were four times as great: 60 percent. Excellent teaching, in other words, can be a substantial counterweight to socioeconomic status as the determination of what children and youths can learn.

My own state, North Carolina, paid out $138 million in those bonuses last year for a school incentive program that rewards faculty and staff members for student growth on standardized tests. We were encouraged that an increasing number of schools have received these rewards from year to year, and by how well teachers had responded to the program. We credit the school bonuses, along with a push for thousands of teachers to achieve national board certification, as two strong reasons that North Carolina’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress rose more in the last decade than those of any other state.

Another key recommendation of the commission is that we empower principals to be CEOs in their buildings. Unless principals are trained to take on the true role of leadership, and unless teachers participate fully in the decisionmaking process and help shape the most effective ways to identify exemplary performance, any effort to improve teacher quality will fail.

The cost of these changes is not insignificant. But if, for example, we invested an additional $30 billion—less than a tenth of what we spend now in education—we could give all teachers a 10 percent raise. More importantly, we could give the top half of all current or potential teachers a 30 percent boost, based on their demonstrated excellence.

As the economist Eric A. Hanushek points out, investing in teaching to address student achievement will pay for itself. He estimates that significant improvements in education over a 20-year period could lead to as much as a 4 percent addition to the gross domestic product. That would be over $400 billion in increased GDP, an amount that rivals total current expenditures on K-12 public education.

We can’t afford not to make this investment. We still have a nation at risk. We have students at risk. And we have some teachers who are clearly at risk of leaving the profession because they are unwilling to continue to teach without the skills they need to perform at an accomplished level.

Research shows that quality teaching matters. We’ve got to stop treating quality teachers as if they don’t.

What will it take? We need leaders across the nation to emulate what the Teaching Commission has done—build consensus among Democrats and Republicans, elected officials and education practitioners, union leaders and corporate executives. Then, together, we can and must create an incentive-laden accountability system that is both fair to teachers and supportive of national priorities for raising student achievement.

Research shows that quality teaching matters. We’ve got to stop treating quality teachers as if they don’t. Teaching is the profession that makes all other professions possible. Our nation will not continue to lead if we persist in viewing teaching as a second-rate occupation.

James B. Hunt Jr. is a former four-time governor of North Carolina and the founder of the Hunt Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He serves as a member of the Teaching Commission.

A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2004 edition of Education Week as A Quid Pro Quo For Teacher Quality

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