In the Spring of 2014, the Center for American Progress presented the data from a newly released study that clearly demonstrated the uneven distribution of highly effective teachers. The report contained few surprises.
Schools serving high percentages of children of color and/or children of poverty tend to have significantly fewer highly-qualified and experienced teachers. Schools that share those demographics also tend to have higher percentages of teachers performing at marginal levels of proficiency. Compare that to the schools in Finland, widely regarded as the finest in world, where all children are treated to nearly identical learning conditions and highly-trained instructors regardless of socio-economic standing.
Once upon a time, in the days before evaluation by so-called student growth, many altruistic newcomers to the profession would spend at least a few years in challenged schools, almost as a rite of passage, performing the education equivalent of “pro bono” work. If success arrives difficult scenarios, the enhancement of the instructional repertoire is such that more affluent jurisdictions will willingly upgrade their workforce without being compelled to devote as many resources to the reinforcement of fundamentals in pedagogy for beginning teachers.
Today, however, well-coached teacher candidates now routinely ask potential employers, “Where do your test scores fall?” The strongest candidates are chasing the schools with the best test scores. If one’s future employment depends on high test scores, seek work in areas where the test scores are highest. Errant public policy has created this beast.
Asked to participate on the discussion panel to discuss the role of organized labor in bargaining policies that secure a more equitable distribution of highly effective teachers in schools of high need, the moderator asked me, in my role as union leader, about financial incentives and reorganization of the school day. Increasing the staffing ratios to decrease the workload is an expensive fix, and the typical bonuses involved are relatively paltry for the effort that must be expended.
Worse, such policies treat only the symptoms while ignoring the disease.
Of more relevance is the ethical status of a society that permits children of color and poverty to attend overcrowded, inadequately resourced and even dilapidated facilities. We create the unbearable conditions that drive committed educators to seek other venues for their talents and mistakenly believe that offering a few dollars in incentives will render those conditions tolerable.
Financial incentives may purchase a couple years of increased engagement, but the workload for teachers usually proves unsustainable at any price. So-called “combat pay” fails to stem the tide of turnover across time.
In Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Satan proclaims “…’tis better to reign in hell, than to serve in heaven.” It is abundantly clear that teachers categorically reject that proposition. Teachers vastly prefer to serve in the comparative paradise of classrooms where no child risks suffering through the anonymity of the masses. When will this nation muster the political will to achieve equitable educational opportunities for all children?
[The original version of this Commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on April 24, 2014. It has been expanded and revised. ]