There are a plethora of problems facing students, especially those in the inner city, and many of those problems extend beyond the reach of our schools: problems in the family, a lack of socioeconomic diversity in distressed neighborhoods, the paucity of important resources to assist in learning. These are sensitive public policy issues, and as such are subject to a plodding, divisive political process.
But the one area where consensus is much more likely is the issue of improving the quality of our teachers. This means finding a way to improve the performance of our existing teachers and finding a way to attract the “best and brightest” to our inner city schools. A recent report noted that 50% of all new teachers graduated in the bottom third of their class. Meanwhile, the top students are on their way to operating rooms, Wall Street, research labs, law offices, the IT industry, and engineering firms. As I wrote in a recent blog, last year over 25,000 STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) teachers left the profession, noting “disgruntlement with their jobs and a lack of professional support” among the reasons they left.
My personal feeling, my suspicion, is that the best way we can attract and keep these young, energetic graduates is to guarantee them a high level of autonomy and intellectual freedom, institute an incentivized pay structure that rewards success, and provide clinical supervisers that will mentor and collaborate with these new hires, providing practical guidance and emotional support. Let’s turn the high school into a true “marketplace of ideas” where teachers will have greater freedom to design their own “product” and greater accountability and pressure to "generate profit."
I regularly reminded my students that they are to a great extent in competition with one another, that they themselves are a “product” they need to sell to colleges and future employers. Teachers are no different. “Liking kids” and “really wanting to make a difference” are wonderful platitudes but insufficient qualities for the demands of teaching in today’s world.
Unfortunately, too many people with influence over policy, and too many people charged with hiring, still have their eyes shut. We need to retain and attract teachers that possess the spirit of the entrepreneur, who feel a deep, personal attachment to the curriculum, the classroom, and the school in much the same way an entrepreneur feels about her product or service. I understand there are those who would object to what appears to be an effort to bring a little competition and decentralization to our schools, letting the teachers has a greater say in the operation of their schools. My response is to look at our inner city schools, look at the lack of progress, and admit that whatever has been tried has failed. Incremental reforms are not enough, patience is not a virtue. These kids deserve a quality education. They deserve better teachers, and they deserve to have them NOW.