Report: ‘Top-third’ teachers essential to U.S. success

The authors state that the nation could explore how to recruit and retain top-third educators with pilot programs in high-needs districts, in an entire state, or perhaps with a “Race to the Top Third” grant competition. Collaborations among districts, and private philanthropic efforts, might reveal other ways to explore initiatives.

They also recommend creating a “National Teaching Talent Plan” in which a commission would propose steps and timelines to implement changes in how the nation recruits, trains, retains, and rewards teachers.

While efforts of this scale will take time—at least 10 years to show measurable results, the authors said—the report states that the social and economic returns could be immense. In fact, recent McKinsey research found that “the achievement gap between the U.S. and top-performing nations—a burden borne most directly by low-income and minority students—imposes the economic equivalent of a ‘permanent national recession’ on the United States.”

Individual school districts, charter schools, and states could partner with universities, teacher unions, entrepreneurs, and the U.S. Department of Education to devise and implement strategies that guarantee effective teachers are the norm, and not the exception.

Portions of the funding needed to cover the cost of teacher preparation programs, to ensure competitive teacher salaries, and to finance other aspects of a top-third teacher system might already exist in schools’ budgets.

“If this is important to you, it forces you to re-prioritize your resources,” said Kaya Henderson, deputy chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools. “We’ve cut some things in the D.C. budget to make room for salary increases, which we think are important.” Philanthropy supports various other city school programs.

“Part of what this report does is force us to think creatively or differently from how we previously approached funding,” she added.

Another rising expense is that of higher education, which Malfaro said would require a national federal financial commitment if the U.S. is serious about bringing the best of its college students into the teaching profession.

Small increases in class size and examining non-teaching costs also might free up essential dollars. Schools often hire instructional coaches, aides, mentors, and other specialists to step in where a classroom teacher cannot, but if the classroom teacher is of a higher caliber, with more training and support, some of those auxiliary staff might not be necessary.

High-poverty schools typically have high teacher turnover and limited resources, and the report notes that the U.S. has a much higher number of schools where all or a large majority of students are economically disadvantaged than do the top nations profiled in the report. But supporting teachers through mentoring, professional development, and compensation could help reduce the high turnover rate in high-poverty schools.

Examining the U.S.’s teacher preparation and recruitment comes at an opportune time, the authors say, because more than half of today’s teachers will be eligible for retirement in the next 10 years; high-poverty schools struggle to attract great teachers, especially those in science, technology, engineering, and math; and it is more important than ever for students to be well-equipped with 21st-century skills.

Laura Ascione

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