Monday, March 26, 2012

A Magic Bullet?

Theories about what works in teaching evolve constantly. Class size, group work, technology – every year there is a new idea about what works, and teachers change their practices to conform to the newest trends. After a while, you become as jaded as any consumer – there’s always a new technique being pushed, and it’s not entirely clear why it is supposed to be so much better than what you bought last year.

They told you to put your desks in rows, but the next year you are failing the students if their desks aren’t clumped in groups. One day, all members of those groups should be homogenous, based on reading levels, and the next, you are doing them a disservice if they aren’t allowed the chance to work with peers on all different levels.

None of these theories are wrong or right - I don’t mean to discredit the research or thought behind them. However, in education, it’s nearly impossible to find a magic bullet theory. Some kids work well in groups, and some don’t. Some kids learn well using technology, and others need a human to explain it to them in ten different ways before they grasp something. Some students thrive in a big class, and others get lost, desiring more attention from teachers, and fewer distractions.

Most ideas have come and gone. In the four short years that I have spent in the classroom I have been exposed to more than I can count. But there’s one theory that has come to be accepted as a truth: teacher quality matters.

In fact, it’s the thing that matters most. Teacher quality is the number one predictor of student success. We know this, and yet we take it for granted.

In New York, as in many other places, the teacher pay scale is antiquated and ineffective. Our pay structure does nothing to recruit, retain, or recognize high quality teachers. Rather, it values two things – graduate school credits and longevity, neither of which have been established as necessary factors in predicting teacher quality.

Those who would be great teachers would probably be great at any number of professions. Why should they teach? Not only do they have no prospect of making any substantial amount of money until the tail end of their careers, but they also have no promise of professional recognition. In teaching today, you aren’t recognized for being successful – there are no titles to strive for, no bonuses, no raises. You aren’t given more responsibility as you prove that you can handle it.

As it exists, the pay scale perpetuates the status quo – which today means that highly qualified young people aren’t considering teaching as a professional option, and those who do enter it have no financial incentive to stay.

We say that we care about education – yet no one is ready to actually invest in it. We say that teachers are valuable, but their paychecks don’t reflect that. Society seems to assume that those who choose teaching are receiving intrinsic rewards – that they are replying to a higher calling of sorts. But why should we have to choose between doing something good for the world that we live in and being paid as though we were valued?

Now is the time to change the way that teachers are compensated for their work. We know that a successful education system is an important part of any country, and we know that effective teachers are the most important part of the equation. Students achieve more when they have good teachers – not investing in teachers is the same as not investing in the students they serve.

A reformed pay scale can attract great talent to the profession, recognize achievements and successes, and provide incentive to continue improving practices.
A reformed pay scale can elevate the profession of teaching, and by extension, the level of student achievement happening in New York City.

Changing the pay scale isn’t a new theory about classroom practice – but it just may be the magic bullet towards professionalizing teaching.


  1. "Teacher quality is the number one predictor of student success."

    Please cite your source for this argument.

    -Dirk Peters
    Teacher, Prospect Ave., Bronx, NY

  2. Education is a positive externality, and thus, undervalued. But when you say Teacher quality, how do you judge for that? At such a large-scale, how is possible to even judge quality objectively? But I'm also curious, when you say "teacher quality," how do you define that? What is in your opinion, makes a good teacher, or how you identify who makes a great teacher?