Great schools require great teachers, and to attract and retain more of them at the K-12 level, many reformers have recommended paying top performers substantially more. Yet the primary mechanisms for measuring a teacher’s effectiveness—standardized test scores and classroom observations—are problematic. They may fail to identify many educators who excel at sparking intellectual curiosity, imparting critical life skills, and inspiring students to dream.
A new social norm for the online age, however, could help gauge a teachers’ true impact and complement higher pay by improving professional morale. I believe that, as a society, we should ask that, when individuals achieve significant success (whether in receiving an academic degree, in a career, or with their family or community), they publicly acknowledge any K-12 teachers they had who deserve significant credit for inspiring or helping them develop. In the spirit of an Oscar acceptance speech or an author’s acknowledgment page, former pupils should submit short notes to a testimonial website identified with the teacher, stating their name, what they have accomplished, and something special they learned from that teacher.
Such public postings would enable teachers to feel the validation and pride they deserve to enjoy from the accomplishments of their one-time students, almost all of whom they are likely to have lost touch with. After all, the major attraction of becoming a K-12 educator is usually the opportunity to help children learn. In fact, the chance to have a dramatic and enduring positive impact on inequality is almost certainly the primary reason that such a large number of graduates of elite colleges apply each year to work in some of the nation’s most disadvantaged schools through Teach For America.
But teaching students disadvantaged by poverty and often difficult family situations can be terribly discouraging, especially when teachers feel unsupported by school systems and fear that their students will regress in future years. It’s not surprising that one study estimated that about 8 percent of teachers in the top 25 percent of the profession (or 64,000) leave the field each year. In fact, like banker George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” many great and potentially great teachers become frustrated by the lack of evidence that they are having an enduring impact, give up, and even discourage others from starting. Data about former student successes could, like the presentation of a guardian angel, provide such proof.
While K-12 teachers may never gain the fame of top athletes or other entertainers, more merit the heroic status of the real public school teachers portrayed in films like “Stand and Deliver” and “Dangerous Minds.”
Public testimonial web pages like the one I’ve described would also help great teachers gain the respect and status they deserve from family and friends by documenting a sample of their successes as developers of talent. The website could also note any other teaching awards that the teacher has received. To deter abuse, former students could be required to submit contact information, permitting verification by both the teacher mentioned and, perhaps, a volunteer from a PTA committee.
Schools could also factor such testimonials into mechanisms for identifying their most effective teachers for financial rewards. This would acknowledge that ratings based mainly on “value-added” standardized test scores and classroom observations may fail to measure many important intangibles that great teachers nurture—such as grit and self-discipline—especially if pupils don’t fully adopt and benefit from them until years later.
The combination of these non-monetary benefits and additional monetary support for great teachers could even help address the findings of a 2010 McKinsey study: that while the top-performing K-12 systems in the world—Finland, Singapore, and South Korea—recruit all of their teachers from the top third of the academic pool, less than a quarter of new U.S. teachers come from that subset. Elite students might be more inclined to go into teaching if they knew there was some better measure of their long-term success.
So what’s holding us back? Public officials and the media should use National Teacher Appreciation Day each May to promote a new social norm that demands that current adults treat the day as a reminder to think about, contact, and thank their great K-12 teachers.