Now is the Time to Reimagine Teaching

June 18th, 2012

Category: News, Policy and Practice

The Delaware Department of Education announced that eleven schools will participate in the Race to the Top teacher incentive program – providing highly-effective educators that demonstrate substantial growth with their students $10,000 dollars to continue teaching at their high-need schools.

As someone who has firsthand experience as both an educator and technical assistance provider around performance pay, I can see why the other 19 schools are reluctant to participate. As a teacher in Houston ISD the first year it rolled out its program, it did not go well – to which the news clips will attest. People were uncertain as to why they received or did not receive money, some were paid who shouldn’t have been, and the program was set up as a reward to those who did better compared to their peers – which was rightly viewed as a competition.

Based on that and other experiences up to now, here’s my two cents on the topic. First, as a former teacher, yes, school-wide efforts can help enhance student learning – as I covered previously regarding my time at KIPP. And Delaware has programs that address this, including the Academic Achievement Awards. However, at the end of the day, your students are with you the vast, vast majority of the time and any educator, parent, and student will rightly acknowledge that time with teachers is not equal in value. Research shows what we intuitively know – some people are simply better at teaching, period – with significant short and long-term effects on the lives of children. We recognize and accept this in professions such as medicine, law, and engineering where we demand nothing but excellence in results – and our students’ learning should be no different.

Second, the one question that I have yet to see that we should all be asking ourselves is, “what knowledge, skills, and traits make these teachers successful?” More specifically, what is it about these people that enable them to make dramatic gains with students? Is it their charisma? Is it their leadership skills? Is it specific pedagogical practices they all share? And, more importantly, can we recognize this when recruiting and selecting teachers so that who we bring in has a greater chance of success? These questions are the exact ones that Teach For America and The New Teacher Project ask every year – and continually refine based upon the performance of the teachers they place in classrooms.

And most importantly, focusing on the divisiveness piece doesn’t elevate the conversation to a place specifically advocated for by the NEA Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching – which focuses on a tiered system of achievement for career teachers. And so instead of solely highlighting the additional compensation provided to these educators for a year, the much bigger conversation that needs to take place involves restructuring the profession to create positions where they either remain in the classroom with substantially higher pay or ascend into school-based instructional leadership roles in order to help more teachers, provide professional development to those educators on the cusp of excellence, and give intense support to those at the bottom. This all needs to be done with the goal of reimagining the role of the state and district in effectively managing their talent and compensating them based upon excellence – not time on the job or degrees obtained.

In the end, based on my experiences, it’s no surprise that a limited number of schools chose to participate the first-go round – this stuff is hard and brings up uncomfortable conversations. However, if we are to meet our goal of recruiting the best and brightest into teaching, training and supporting them effectively, and putting those most able in positions to impact the most kids – they we need to recognize this as an opportunity to discuss how we can turn the Vision 2015, Race to the Top, United States Department of Education, and NEA goals of redefining teaching into a reality.

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Brett Turner



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