First, Kill All the Pensions

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Last week, in this thread of comments, Cynic went on at some length about his thoughts regarding teachers and education reform. Often comments like these are toward the bottom and get lost. Given the sheer amount of time some of you put into comments, I want to make a greater effort to make sure those comments are seen. 

Anyway, here's Cynic's comment in its entirety. I'd love to hear any reactions--especially from teachers.

I'll try to keep this short and to the point, because I'm writing off into the margins. 

My basic premise is that we have a terrible mismatch between the characteristics of teachers most likely to produce excellent outcomes, and the characteristics of the systems that seek to attract and retain them. We want teachers who demonstrate perseverance coupled with ambition, steady improvement over time, and achievement, without succumbing to complacence. Our school systems, on the other hand, are bastions of stability. They extend the promise of steady employment in a volatile world, substantial job security, and for those who stick it out for long enough, an enormous deferred payoff in the form of benefits and pensions. If we'd designed it from scratch, we would have struggled to produce a system more perfectly designed to attract young people who value stability, or to repel and grind down those who seek constant change.

One way to think about the success of (some) charter schools is their ability to more closely align the work environment with the characteristics of successful teachers. I'd be quick to note that the most successful conventional schools often do this, too. They emphasize constant work, continual improvement, big goals, and perseverance. But it's not clear to me how scalable such successes will prove to be, to the extent that they rely on attracting current teachers who thrive in such environments, and forcing out others who prefer greater stability. What's needed, I'd suggest, are a pair of reforms aimed at aligning these two sets of characteristics more closely - so that instead of re-sorting the existing pool of teachers, we can alter its overall composition.

The first set revolves around labor mobility. Work environments hospitable to continual innovation tend to have relatively low barriers to entry, and relatively low barriers to exit. Schools invert that. Many have extensive up-front credentialing requirements, forcing novice teachers to invest substantial time and money at the beginning of their careers, before they can even decide whether they are indeed well-suited for the job. Early career teachers tend to get the least desirable assignments, and to be paid barely enough on which to live. On the other hand, most compensation packages are grossly back-loaded, offering lock-step seniority raises and substantial retirement benefits. So it's tough to get in the door, and once you do, leaving entails abandoning the rewards for which you've already labored before you can enjoy them. That's crazy.


I'd like to see an entirely new arrangement. Get rid of pensions, retiree health plans, and other benefits that incentivize workers to stick it out. Use the savings to raise early-career salaries to more competitive levels, and to institute generous 401(k) matches. This would, in one fell swoop, make it easier to attract new talent, and easier for those dissatisfied in their schools, their districts, or their careers to seek greener pastures. 

The second set of reforms clusters around seniority. People tend to deliver their best work when they take ownership and a sense of professional pride in what they do. At the moment, most teaching assignments and salaries have more to do with seniority than skill. This, too, will tend to foster a careerist, bureaucratic mentality and to attract those who find that comforting - endure the initial overwhelming pain, discharge your responsibilities at the minimal acceptable level for thirty years, and you'll do no better or worse than a colleague who dazzles. In NYC, for example, initial salaries are set on the basis of educational credentials, with seven salary steps based on seniority. More craziness.

Education should, instead, work a little more like other government careers, blending seniority with performance. There should be multiple ranks - say, Teacher I-V - with smaller increases based on experience. Perform superlatively, get an earlier promotion. (This is different than a bonus. There's no evidence that bonuses improve performance in almost any realm, and quite a bit that they lead to gaming of metrics. Promotions, on the other hand, offer dignity and acclaim alongside higher compensation - a better fit for professionals.) Different job titles would have other, salutary effects, most notably in the realm of teacher assignments. As in most careers, promotions could come with increased challenges and responsibilities - say, an assignment to a school more desperately in need of the teacher's demonstrated achievements. It could even tie in to lower barriers to entry - a district could decide that a Teacher I & II needed only basic certification, but that Teachers III-V should have a master's degree. (Turning the masters in education from a qualifying credential to a mid-career refresher capable of preparing particularly good teachers to mentor, chair departments, or discharge other responsibilities is one of my pet notions.)

Think about what a difference this might make, in aggregate, to a hard-working student with a GPA that has risen steadily while in college, a record of leadership in improving extracurriculars, and a good work ethic. That so many such students already choose to teach is a tribute to their idealism and dedication, and to the manifold rewards of a teaching career - a sense of purpose, a family-friendly schedule, and a fair degree of independence among them. But not enough make that choice. With those credentials, the world is their oyster. Why should they suffer relatively low starting salaries, onerous credentialing requirements, undesirable assignments, and a system that does little to reward their initiative or standout achievement? 


Those sacrifices will look most attractive to those who value the offsetting rewards - secure, stable employment. But a system that quickly credentials graduates and places them in the classroom, granting them a degree of responsibility few of their peers will enjoy; that puts them in successful schools at the start of their careers, where they can learn best practices first-hand and build their own skill-levels; that allows them to ascend through the ranks of their job, based on their classroom performance; and that enables them to do all of that, without committing to spending a lifetime in a single district, and to walk away if it ever ceases to be rewarding? That's the kind of job that recent college graduates won't just try out for a couple of years before moving on - it's the kind of job they'll fight to keep.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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