Our View: New ideas in teaching yield dramatic results
With a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, a master's in biomedical
engineering and no teaching credentials, Mark Ware, 25, might strike people
as out of place in a Houston alternative school instructing students who
failed in regular public school. But Ware's inexperience didn't prevent
fellow teachers from recently voting him teacher of the year at Alta Charter
Another unlikely teacher is 23-year-old Ash Solar, who just finished his
first year at Ryan Elementary School in a poor neighborhood in Houston.
Unlike other teachers there, Solar grew up in an affluent part of Houston,
attended private schools and graduated from an Ivy League college. But
he connected with the students. Although Solar's Hispanic students started
the year unable to write a paragraph in English, 89% ended up passing
the state's writing test.
What Solar and Ware have in common is both just completed their first
year in Teach for America. Since 1990, the non-profit program has placed
more than 10,000 graduates from the nation's top colleges in school districts
facing the toughest education challenges. In spite of their lack of classroom
experience, they have improved students' math performance more than experienced
teachers have, and they've proved as effective in reading instruction
as classroom veterans, according to a study released by the research firm
Mathematica this month.
The reason why new teachers lacking formal training can be so successful
in the classroom is no mystery. Solar and Ware represent what's missing
in schools: enthusiasm, idealism and a rigorous college education. Teachers
coming through traditional-preparation routes too often lack those qualities.
Students aspiring to be teachers score lower on college-admission tests
than those planning other careers, and, in many states, veteran teachers
have difficulty passing certification tests pegged to knowledge high school
seniors are expected to master.
In fact, a decade of experimentation in education reform has led to the
conclusion that a lack of effective teachers is the main impediment to
raising the standards of failing public schools. Poor teaching keeps low-performing
schools stuck in that rut, numerous research studies have found. By contrast,
students assigned highly effective teachers three years in a row will
see their ranking based on test scores more than double, according to
several studies by education researchers in Tennessee in the 1990s.
The lack of strong teachers is all the more disturbing because tools for
boosting their performance are within the reach of nearly all school districts.
Among the proven ways:
•Tie pay to performance. Teachers are typically paid based on the
years they spend in the classroom, not their effectiveness. After Phoenix's
Madison School District experimented with a performance-based pay system
in 1999, student achievement soared in four schools in poor neighborhoods
three years later. One of the schools, Madison Rose Elementary, won Arizona's
top school award this year. Bonuses for top teachers run as high as $15,000,
nearly a 40% boost over the average salary of $40,000.
•Keep good teachers. Chattanooga, Tenn., pays $5,000 bonuses and
tuition for master's programs to retain effective teachers in poor-performing
schools. The effort has reduced turnover by 50% over two years, and the
number of third-grade students able to read at their grade level or higher
increased 50% during that time.
•Recruit non-traditional teachers. Teach for America succeeds by
luring excellent students who otherwise might not consider a teaching
career. Some states have other ways to attract strong candidates who lack
teaching degrees. Texas used mentors provided by school districts to train
more than half its new hires this past school year.
•Improve teacher colleges. Education reformers have long complained
about weak teacher colleges. Now efforts are underway to improve them.
In Ohio, for example, researchers are sifting through student test scores
to help the University of Dayton identify effective classroom teachers.
Lessons learned from observing those teachers will help Dayton's education
professors improve their curriculums.
Teachers' unions say paying teachers for their performance can backfire
by making the school climate too competitive. Other factors, such as how
much districts spend on education, better explain why many students fare
poorly in school, they say.
Certainly, U.S. schools have thousands of dedicated and highly qualified
teachers, but far too few of them work where they are in critical need:
the poorest and most challenging schools.
Teach for America and other innovative programs are trailblazing paths
to find those good teachers. Now, the nation's school districts need to
muster the will to follow.
Opposing View: Solution isn't that simple
By Reg Weaver
When common sense and research meet, they should provide guideposts for
action. Parents and teachers have long understood the value of parental
involvement, teacher quality and class size from direct experience. Numerous
research studies confirm the impact those factors have on student achievement.
And public opinion recognizes that after parental involvement, teacher
quality and class size make the biggest difference in how much students
Unfortunately, policymakers too often look for the flashy, cure-all remedies
when what is needed is a comprehensive approach that takes into account
all of the factors that address teacher quality. Again, research confirms
what common sense suggests — that schools must address a range of
issues, such as teacher preparation, entry-level requirements, ongoing
evaluation and professional development, and compensation to get the type
of teachers that parents want and students need.
Every year, well-intentioned people issue reports or proposals to address
teacher quality. But the National Education Association and its affiliates
are involved in taking on these issues every day — before school
boards, state boards of education and legislatures. We've been at this
work since 1857, and we will continue as long as we exist.
Proposals to pay some teachers more than others do nothing to motivate
all teachers and simply create a competitive environment, in contrast
to efforts that foster teamwork among teachers and achieve the goal of
a qualified teacher in every classroom. Proposals to make it easier to
fire teachers do nothing to address the challenges schools face in attracting
qualified teachers to take their place.
We can and must take steps to attract and keep smart, energetic and committed
people in the teaching profession. And we must also work to address other
issues that affect student achievement.
Students can't learn when they are hungry or sick. Expanding access to
nutrition and health care programs are essential parts of education reform.
Low-income students are less likely to participate in developmental child
care programs and all-day kindergarten. Both have proved effective in
promoting long-term educational achievement. Helping young parents understand
how they can help their children by reading to them and staying involved
in their academic lives can also make a huge difference. The need to boost
parental involvement argues less for a government program than for better
communication between parents and teachers.
It's clear what won't work — more finger-pointing and simplistic
solutions. Teachers and parents must work together. Schools and communities
must work together. And policymakers must listen to the views of teachers
If we all do our part, we can make public schools great for every child.
Reg Weaver is president of the National Education Association.