Staffing Design: The Missing Key to Teacher Quality 2.0

As part of the AEI Teacher Quality 2.0 series, the authors of this paper take on the delicate issue of school-staffing design. In the first two pages, they rip apart arguments others have spent years carefully constructing: Teacher pay may be too low, but, they counter, across-the-board raises are impossibly expensive for even profligate spenders ($16 billion per year, or roughly the entire Title I budget for just a $5,000 per teacher raise, according to their calculations). Professional development is also important, but won’t do much good when teachers have so little adult interaction and feedback. And of course we want able, motivated individuals to enter the profession, but they leave quickly when they find no pathway to advance professionally as they could and would in other lines of work. So what’s the alternative? The authors offer up several staffing models that have in common a reduction in the number of teachers—who, in today’s standard model, are chiefly responsible for two-dozen or so students at a time. Since the 1970s, they remind us, the number of staff in our schools has increased by 84 percent, while the number of students has only increased at least a tenth of that rate. Instead, the paper calls for giving top teachers more students or oversight over multiple classrooms, allowing those in the primary grades to specialize by subject, employ blended learning, or even teach remotely. Touchstone Charter Schools in New Jersey, for example, created a teacher career ladder by allowing “master teachers” to oversee and support other teachers, as well as students who are learning at their own pace. Such proposals would create opportunities for many more pupils to be taught by higher-quality, better-paid teachers using the same dollars we already spend. Moreover, it would elevate the work of experienced educators and attract highly motivated talent with the promise of higher pay, more rewarding work, and the ability to be promoted into different and more fulfilling roles without having to leave the classroom. There would certainly be resistance, for each of these models questions fundamental assumptions about the way our schools have “always” been; for these ideas to work, reformers need to shift the public conversation away from the union-backed idea that class size is all that matters. But the potential upside of these new ideas—more students taught by outstanding instructors—is worth the fight.

Bryan C. Hassel, Emily Ayscue Hassel, and Sharon Kebschull Barrett, “Staffing Design: The Missing Key to Teacher Quality 2.0,” prepared for the American Enterprise Institute conference, “Teacher Quality 2.0: Will today’s reform hold back tomorrow’s schools?” (September 12, 2013).

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