How to Get a First-Rate Teacher in Front of Every Student

Education Week American Education News Site of RecordA recent Education Week blog by Marc Tucker examines what it truly takes to get a first-rate teacher in front of every student, and compares the United States systems to the rest of the world. Some experts estimate that half of those who start a career in teaching are gone in five years, and those whose view is much less grim, nonetheless estimate attrition rates that are still way above the rates of teacher attrition in the top-performing countries.  Consider that those who leave teaching before 10 years have elapsed never get a chance to become an expert teacher, and a good deal more than half of those who start a career in teaching leave within that time.

When teachers are asked why they leave teaching so early in their careers, they typically complain that they were not well prepared for the realities of teaching and had little help once they started teaching. Indeed, many report a “sink or swim” experience that was distinctly unpleasant.

But what about those who stay in teaching?  Here the research is helpful again.  It tells us that most teachers have a steep learning curve during their first three years in teaching, but that curve typically flattens out after three years.  There is, to my knowledge, no definitive finding on why this is so, but when you look at the incentives that teachers face, it is hard to find any incentives for teachers to get better and better at their jobs.  They have a strong incentive to learn enough to survive—to do the job “well enough” at the outset.  But, after that, all teachers have pretty much the same job, at the same pay, with the same status, for the rest of their working lives.

When a system focuses on building teacher expertise through collaborative, research-focused professional learning and at the same time provides a meaningful career progression that reinforces and rewards the building of teacher expertise, the following tends to occur:

  1. Novice teachers don’t bail right away, as many do now, because they get plenty of support from expert teachers to learn their craft.
  1. Teacher learning does not peak after the third year of teaching, because the system creates very strong norms and incentives for continuous improvement.
  1. Teacher retention rates go way up; novices stay in teaching on average about twice as long as the average teacher in the United States, providing the time most teachers will need to become truly expert.

The only caution Mr. Tucker states to these results is this:

In every one of these cases, enormous efforts have been made to create the strongest possible cadre of teachers beginning their careers as novice teachers. 

This package needs to have a warning sign on it:  Do not expect the same results from your schools as these countries have gotten if you adopt the measures described in these papers but fail to attend to the quality of the teachers entering the system.

To read the entire blog and the research quoted, see Getting First Rate Teachers.