If you buy the meme of the moment, teachers unions are the nastiest of the villains robbing American schoolchildren of bright futures. All identically rigid and orthodox, they do this by protecting bad teachers at all cost.
Why, if Gov. Tim Pawlenty is to be believed, the labor syndicates are so mighty they even drove iron-fisted education reformer and “Superwoman” Michelle Rhee from her post as D.C. schools savior. (Rhee’s more prosaic explanation: The district’s next mayor deserves to appoint his own chancellor.)
This is, of course, both truth — most dramatically illustrated by the movie “Waiting for Superman” — and hyperbole.
So what if we shifted the debate a few degrees? What if there were fewer bad teachers in need of firing? Does teaching, as a profession, draw the people who will turn into the best teachers? What if we could close the achievement gap by closing a teacher talent gap?
A new study by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. confirms what some Minnesota education policy watchers have been saying for years: What we’d lose in terms of a lightning rod, we’d more than make up in the caliber of the teaching corps and, as a direct and powerful result, the effectiveness of the instruction in our most challenging classrooms.
Recruit from pool of top talents
The report expands on something the folks at the St. Paul think tank Education Evolving have been saying for some time: While countries with across-the-board great schools track their top talents into teaching, only 23 percent of new U.S. teachers are in the top third of their class.
McKinsey looked at the teacher corps in Singapore, South Korea and Finland — countries whose schools deliver consistently high results despite some of the same socioeconomic stumbling blocks schools face here.
“These systems recruit 100 percent of their teacher corps from the top third of the academic cohort, and then screen for other important qualities as well,” the researchers found. “In the U.S., by contrast, 23 percent of new teachers come from the top third and just 14 percent in high-poverty schools, which find it especially difficult to attract and retail talented teachers. It is a remarkably large difference in approach, and in results.
“The U.S. does not take a strategic or systematic approach to nurturing teaching talent,” McKinsey also reported. “Buffeted by a chaotic mix of labor market trends, university economics, and local school district and budget dynamics, we have failed to attract, develop, reward, or retain outstanding teaching talent on a consistent basis.”
In Finland, becoming a teacher is an incredibly competitive career goal. Only the country’s top students can get into teacher-preparation programs. Once in the classroom, teachers have a lot of power in terms of how schools are run.
Similar in Singapore
The story is similar in Singapore, where the best teachers have opportunities for career advancement.
Perhaps more important than working conditions and job security, in all three countries teaching is a prestigious profession.
Because 1.8 million of the United States’ 3.3 million teachers will retire in next decade, McKinsey suggests education policymakers should start priming the teacher pipeline now. For starters, we should consider giving the best candidates incentives to go to work in tough schools — and stay in them.
“In one scenario, for example, the U.S. could double the number of top-third new hires in top-needs schools, from 14 percent today to 34 percent, without raising teacher salaries,” the report said. Teachers would not pay for their initial training; would receive “ongoing training comparable to the best professional institutions,” and would be assured the schools were safe. The best would get bonuses of up to 20 percent.
To increase the number of top-third hires in those schools to 68 percent, average starting salaries would have to rise to $65,000 — about where teachers max on now on national average — with top salaries for senior teachers of up to $150,000 possible.
Screen for the right traits
Beyond that, recruiters should screen for traits that are known predictors of teaching success: perseverance, the ability to motivate others, a passion for children and communications and organization skills.
Finally, teacher-preparation programs must become much more selective. Across the board, students at the head of their classes want to work with talented peers, in prestigious jobs where they do challenging work that makes a difference, and where they have access to high-quality training.
None of this surprises Education Evolving’s Ted Kolderie, a longtime civic activist involved in creating the first charter schools. Education Evolving advocates giving teachers more control over their working conditions by encouraging the creation of schools “owned” by teacher co-ops, and by creating teacher professional partnerships.
More information is available on EE’s website. The gist: Teachers are happier and more effective working in collaborative groups similar to the professional partnerships long enjoyed by doctors, lawyers and other professionals who literally own their own intellectual work product.
Said Kolderie: “To people who say schools need better teachers, we say back: If you want better people, you’ve got to give them a better job.”