October 23, 2008
Making the Numbers Work.
An insightful report was released this week by Steven Wilson of the Education Sector, an independent non-profit that does educational policy analysis. The report raises a major question about the numbers game facing school reformers -- namely, how are we going to get more high-quality teachers into the schools where kids need them the most? Wilson presents the numbers question from the perspective of succesful charter schools that are emerging throughout the country.
Put succinctly, Wilson finds that teachers in widely-renown high-achieving charter schools (such as the 75 schools that belong to three celebrated charter networks--the KIPP schools, Achievement First schools, and Uncommon Schools) are so rare in terms of academic background and other qualifications that it would be virtually impossible to replicate these schools' high quality teaching staffs in other schools.
He draws this conclusion by starting with an analysis of the high achieving schools and what percentage of the teachers there come from selective colleges (as just one proxy for talented young teachers). It turns out that somewhere around 80 percent of the teachers in high-performing charter schools serving low-income youth graduated from colleges that are regarded by Barron's profile of American Colleges as "very competitive." By contrast, in the public schools writ large, only 19.2 percent of teachers graduated from the "very competitive" colleges.
What does that mean? Well for starters, it clearly means that we need to get more of our nation's brightest young people into teaching, and programs like Teach For America can help with that. But Teach For America currently has 5,000 corps members--barely one percent of the total number of teachers in just the public schools employed by 66 school districts in the Council of the Great City Schools. Moreover, only 140,000 students graduate each year from colleges ranked by Barron's as "highly competitive" - and even if half of them chose to spend two years teaching in these low-income city schools, only 33 percent of classrooms in the schools would have such a teacher.
Wilson goes on to suggest trying out programs to turn existing teachers who do not fit the elite college typecast into high-performing teachers as a way to out-flank the sheer numbers shortage. As a principle, he is absolutely right to suggest that nothing about a person's college inherently makes someone a qualified (or unqualified) teacher. After all there are plenty of book-smart people who would not have the personal skills to thrive in low-performing schools, and plenty of very educated and thoughtful people in schools that Barron's hasn't given its "highly competitive" label.
But Wilson's suggestion to focus our dollars, policies, and political capital on improving existing teachers is an interesting choice, since it has a clear alternative: spending the money and political energy to attract and retain high quality educators from all educational backgrounds.
Put another way, what if instead of assuming a two-year teaching commitment from today's talented college grads we could recast the financial incentives and workplace conditions of the teaching profession to encourage them to spend 10 or 15 years teaching? What if instead of paying the oldest teachers the most and forcing talented young teachers to leave because they're not earning what they are worth, we flipped compensation on its head and paid the best teachers the most no matter what their age? Wouldn't a 25 year old making $55,000 teaching because they are getting tremendous learning gains for their students be more inclined to stay in the field than one who makes $35,000 as is the case these days? It's a numbers game when it comes to fixing our schools, but the trick is choosing among a load of options as to how to make the numbers work.