Failing the Future?

In this commentary, Russell Nichols writes that to recruit and retain great teachers, let’s start by razing our standards.
by | May 3, 2011

In this online commentary, staff writer Russell Nichols says that to recruit and retain great teachers, let’s start by razing our standards.

Don’t judge a teacher by a test score.

This principle should be common knowledge. But unfortunately, America's public education system runs on an "American Idol"-style process of elimination. Despite the reality that various other factors affect student performance, teachers pay the price when their students can’t make the grades, a vicious cycle that undermines what learning is about in the first place.

This doesn’t mean teacher performance shouldn’t be evaluated, but that the weeding out process desperately needs an upgrade. And with half of the nation’s 3.2 million public school teachers approaching retirement, the rise of digital instruction and financial deficits slicing education funds, we need to start by raising our standards.

But since we’re on the subject of money, let’s talk about salaries and the fact that the Economic Policy Institute found that in 2003, teachers make 14 percent less than people in other occupations with similar levels of education. Salaries have been sliding for 30 years, forcing many to make money elsewhere and others to drop out -- nationwide, 46 percent of teachers quit before their fifth year, according to The New York Times. With such high turnover, especially in the urban communities, the children, the leaders of tomorrow, inevitably suffer.

In a Times Op-Ed, Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari, founders of the 826 National tutoring centers and producers of the documentary “American Teacher,” highlight a recent study that compares the treatment of teachers in the States with those in Finland, Singapore and South Korea.

Turns out these countries have an entirely different approach to the profession. First, the governments in these countries recruit top graduates to the profession. (We don’t.) In Finland and Singapore they pay for training. (We don’t.) In terms of purchasing power, South Korea pays teachers on average 250 percent of what we do.

And most of all, they trust their teachers. They are rightly seen as the solution, not the problem, and when improvement is needed, the school receives support and development, not punishment. Accordingly, turnover in these countries is startlingly low: In South Korea, it’s 1 percent per year. In Finland, it’s 2 percent. In Singapore, 3 percent.

Imagine that -- an education system that actually stands behind its teachers rather than scapegoating them. But that’s not what we have here. Instead, public officials push sweeping plans that go the opposite direction. Take Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval. According to the Las Vegas Sun, he wants to eliminate teacher tenure, establish one-year teacher contracts with no rehiring guarantees, stop giving raises to teachers with advanced degrees and cut benefits of seniority, such as extra pay.

His ideas do expose critical holes in the current system, such as tenure, which can lock in ineffective teachers. But so much of the proposal revolves around cutting benefits at a time when America needs to be focused on recruiting the best.

Of course, this brings the conversation back to the original question: How do we measure which teachers are “the best”? In another Times Op-Ed, R. Barker Bausell, a biostatistician and emeritus professor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, suggests that we should evaluate teachers by how much relevant instruction they can pack into a school day.

He cites two studies from 30 years ago that found that the most effective teachers crammed more instruction into the year by sticking to the curriculum and maintaining discipline. Bausell champions this focused approach, which would extend to further reforms, such as classroom cameras, longer school days, weeks and years, and extensive tutoring (including online programs).

It’s not news that education costs money. But the costs will be even greater if we continue to penalize teachers without reexamining the whole system. As a country, America is already getting left behind and we don’t need a test to see that the current education system is failing.