Teaching Profession Commentary

Teaching at the Precipice

By Arthur E. Levine & David Haselkorn — November 04, 2008 6 min read

With nearly half of all new teachers leaving their classrooms within five years and as many as a third of the nation’s teaching force readying for retirement, some education and political leaders seem to believe that education can solve its human-resource challenge by becoming more like the military: sign individuals up for short-term enlistments, prepare them in intensive boot-camp experiences, and then send them to the front lines.

As with the armed forces (or even higher education), the answer, these leaders propose, is to supply sufficient teachers by supplementing a small, permanent staff with a large corps of short-timers.

The situation reminds us of the Yiddish tale of the wise men of Chelm.


Chelm, an Eastern European shtetl not known for its brilliance, lay at the base of a cliff. After dark, wandering travelers sometimes fell off the cliff and landed, badly hurt, in the middle of Chelm. Following a rash of such injuries, the shtetl’s governing group, its wise men, convened to find a solution to this problem. They deliberated intensely for three days and three nights, then announced their solemn determination: They would build a hospital at the bottom of the cliff.

Rather than preventing injuries to travelers, the wise men of Chelm chose to treat the injured. They accepted the problem as immutable.

Rebuilding the teaching profession around current attrition patterns is a lot like building a hospital at the bottom of the cliff—shortsighted and ultimately counterproductive. Instead, we need to provide teachers with solid preparation and support that will help keep them in the classroom.

Study after study has shown that experienced teachers are more effective in raising student academic performance. Research conducted by the Education Schools Project, for example, found student achievement in math and reading significantly higher in classes taught by teachers with 10 years of experience, compared with those taught by peers with less than five years on the job. Over 12 years of schooling, the differential is nearly a year’s achievement in math and more than a year in reading.

We can help retain teachers by ameliorating the key problems that cause them to leave: poor salaries, bad working conditions, low status, and too little preparation for the classroom.

States and school districts can raise teacher salaries, which are low compared to that of the average college graduate with a comparable degree, and the disparity grows the longer a teacher remains in the classroom. They can also provide higher pay for teachers working in hard-to-staff schools or high-need fields.

Districts can improve working conditions by placing talented principals in schools and appointing district leaders committed to turning teaching into a career ladder. With differentiated opportunities and responsibilities throughout their careers, as well as ongoing professional development, teachers can move up this ladder.

Teachers’ unions can assist by treating their members as professionals rather than craft workers. This requires real courage and leadership from unions and genuine commitment from communities, school boards, and superintendents to make the arrangement a true quid pro quo for teachers. As Denver’s re-ratification of its ProComp pay-for-performance plan has once again proved, teachers will accept greater responsibility for their efforts to raise achievement in exchange for higher pay, fair evaluation (including peer review), and more meaningful professional development.

In hard fiscal times, such proposals may sound costly. But in the long run, investments that improve teacher retention will cost less than revolving-door recruitment. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future has estimated the cost of replacing teachers who turn over in the early years at $15,000 to $20,000 per teacher in our largest urban schools. The additional cost of remediation for students who lack expert teachers more than doubles that amount.

An emerging body of research suggests both that better-prepared teachers are more effective as first-year teachers, and that teachers who are more effective stay in teaching longer. (See studies by the New York Pathways to Teaching project and work by John M. Krieg, Eric A. Hanushek, Dan Goldhaber, and Kimberly Barraza Lyons, for example.)

Along with better initial preparation, two to three years of teacher mentoring and induction must become the norm. During this time, novice teachers would undergo an arc of professional growth comparable to those of medical residencies and legal training, where developing knowledge and skill is closely monitored and supported.

To ensure that teachers have more effective leaders helping them improve their work, we should develop a national system of board certification for school principals, akin to that undertaken by the growing cadre of teachers certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, who are demonstrating their effectiveness in the classroom.

All this would go a long way toward ensuring that all students have good teachers, but states and districts also need to be more aggressive in recruiting—and more innovative in preparing—a broader talent pool for teaching. Better salaries and support can make teaching more attractive to recent graduates with strong academic credentials.

Potential career-changers also should be more creatively and aggressively recruited to teach. A Peter Hart survey done for our group, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, found that two of every five college-educated Americans between the ages of 24 and 60—almost 20 million adults—would consider switching to a teaching career given the right conditions and compensation. These potential teachers are likelier than others to have a postgraduate degree, to have attended selective colleges, and to report having higher-than-average grades. They are also likelier to stay in the field longer, because many want a long-term career change that is more personally rewarding and more compatible with family responsibilities than previous jobs.

What would it take to get more of them to switch? Findings show that starting salaries in the $50,000 range—just $10,000 to $15,000 above many districts’ current starting salary—could do it, along with well-tailored, high-quality training and support.

The real challenge will be paying for this. Gary K. Hart, California’s former secretary of education, has suggested that state boards of education be authorized to certify critical-need areas, such as high school science and math, special education, or low-performing schools. States and participating local school districts could then each provide a $5,000 salary augmentation to new teachers who come to these fields with valuable expertise from other careers. They could fund such supplements by eliminating or reducing lower-priority programs and identifying willing corporate and foundation partners.

Some leaders propose alternative pay systems that would provide more money upfront for new teachers and faster pay increases for those who have proved themselves in the classroom. This approach would also help keep more teachers on the job during the years when they are forming families or paying off student loans, and when they are most likely to be lured away to other positions.

The point is, we need and can develop equitable, attractive alternatives to crash-course teacher preparation, the current salary-step system, and the revolving-door approach. We must do so to encourage both persistence and performance and to recruit a larger supply of qualified teachers.

Rebuilding the teaching profession calls for an emphasis on building teacher capacity and longevity in the classroom. On the precipice of major demographic change, as many districts face growing enrollments and a chasm created by retirements, states and school districts must think in new ways about retention and recruitment. When good teachers stay in the profession longer, students perform better and school districts save money. When we tap in to the large pool of college-educated adults who might teach, we can address teaching’s most critical staffing needs. And we can do it without resorting to building hospitals at the bottom of cliffs. We cannot afford to miss—or give up on—the problem.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 05, 2008 edition of Education Week as Teaching at the Precipice


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