What to do about mediocre teachers?

If there's one idea that unifies education analysts on the left, right, and center, it's the almost-religious belief that "improving teacher quality" is the surest way to boost student achievement. So it was music to many reformers' ears when, in 2007, McKinsey & Co. released its global report on education and argued that "the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers." Further, wrote the authors of the report (including guru Sir Michael Barber, a former aide to Prime Minister Tony Blair), "the top-performing systems we studied recruit their teachers from the top third" of each cohort of college graduates; other systems should do the same, they insisted. It's easy to understand why so many philanthropists and policymakers have put their eggs in the "superstar teacher" basket.

Unfortunately, it's a basket with many holes. A month ago I explained why the obsession with teacher quality is myopic. For a variety of reasons, it's highly unlikely that the United States will ever draw anywhere near all of its teachers from the top third of their college classes. And it's just as unlikely that we'll succeed in redistributing teachers so that the high-flyers teach in the most disadvantaged schools. So what, I asked, is Plan B?

Some readers took my arguments as overly defeatist, so let me explain myself--and edge a little closer to Plan B. By all means, education policymakers and practitioners should do all they can to recruit talented individuals to their systems and schools. "All" would include: knocking down certification barriers that keep crack college graduates from entering the classroom; raising starting teacher salaries and offering portable retirement accounts; instituting pay-for-performance plans that might attract individuals who seek recognition and reward for a job well done; creating bonuses and salary enhancements for those willing to teach in tough neighborhoods or shortage subjects; and creating a professional work environment while cutting red tape and providing real opportunities for career advancement.

It's reasonably likely that this bundle of reforms will serve to attract and retain a fair number of a new breed of teachers, at least in a handful of cities where top-notch college graduates want to live. In Washington, New York, Denver, Seattle, the Bay Area, Chicago, Boston, and other hip localities, these strategies may well transform the teaching profession. It's no surprise that several of these cities are home to some of the most cutting-edge efforts to improve teacher quality. To the leaders in these cities I say: Godspeed.

But let's face it: most of the nation's children don't go to school in these Yuppy/Buppy Valhallas; they sit in classrooms in Cleveland and Detroit and Kansas City and eastern Kentucky and the Mississippi Delta. Inner-city and poor rural children, in particular, tend to live in communities that don't draw the latest and greatest college graduates. And while some of the reforms listed above might help in the heartland, too, at least at the margins, none is likely to yield teaching force comprised of high achievers alone. In fact, I wager that a majority of teachers in remote rural schools and mid-sized urban communities will continue to come from the middle ranks of middling colleges. Or worse. So policymakers and philanthropists might ask: what can we do to make sure that their students get a strong education too?

I don't have any surefire answers, but I see two possible solutions. First, provide tools to make these teachers more effective. And second: replace these teachers with something else entirely.

What tools might make a difference? More than anything, mediocre teachers need a solid curriculum. This is hardly a revolutionary idea, and yet it's striking how little attention curricular frameworks, standards, scopes-and-sequences and materials receive. How can we expect so-so teachers--especially rookies--to make their instruction engaging if we ask each one to invent the instructional wheel themselves? Yet, can you think of a single effort by a major foundation to improve the textbooks that teachers use every day? (I can't.) Are there any states that have provided rich, powerful, tested lesson plans and readings and quizzes and slides and everything else teachers would need to help their students reach high standards? (Assuming, of course, that the states have such standards.) The voluntary "curricular frameworks" that some states throw on their websites just don't cut it.

Maybe what's standing in the way of significant public or private investment in curricula is the lack of national standards. It makes little sense for companies to invest in developing a hodgepodge of state-specific materials. So here's another reason to push for national testing: it might lead to a national marketplace for curricular materials, which could be a boon to rank-and-file teachers.

Eventually, online technologies will inevitably make such materials more engaging than ever. Here, too, some public or private dollars could help. Imagine a website where teachers could download state-of-the-art materials for free: video-game-like simulations; digital clips of movies and animation that could be seamlessly integrated into lessons; videos of master teachers delivering the very lessons planned for the next day; regular diagnostic assessments that could pinpoint learning difficulties; etc.

But these materials will only be developed if there is a financial incentive. So why couldn't a major national foundation offer a bounty to curriculum developers that's market-based? The more times a particular curricular material is downloaded, the more its creator earns. Put a billion dollars into the system and I'd bet that we could dramatically upgrade the instruction taking place in classrooms across America--particularly if everyone is rowing toward a common standard.

Beyond giving teachers better tools, the other option is to replace teachers entirely. This isn't as outlandish as it sounds. The healthcare system figured out long ago that it didn't need MD's doing every annual physical or treating every patient with the flu. It developed "nurse practitioners" and "physicians' assistants"--individuals with plenty of training to provide basic care at a much lower salary. We should consider that model, too.

Think about poor, remote rural communities. While they struggle to attract top-notch teachers to their schools, they are full of caring adults who love kids and need jobs. But lots of these adults don't have college degrees. Maybe that's not a problem. What if every classroom had a "coach," instead of a "teacher," a person charged with keeping students on task, looking after their social and emotional needs, and providing instruction in hands-on subjects like art, music, and gym? But core academics get provided via the Internet. If companies like K12 (where I used to work) can turn everyday parents into effective teachers, why can't technology, eventually, turn other caring adults into effective instructors? Master teachers, working from the comfort of their homes in hip cities or leafy suburbs, could oversee their charges from afar.

I can't think of any national foundations experimenting with this sort of approach. Why not? Some charter laws might allow for it (though getting around No Child Left Behind's "highly qualified teachers" requirements might be a bear). Isn't this a useful avenue to at least explore?

To repeat, I don't have all the answers. Perhaps there's no magic that can turn mediocre teachers into effective instructors--or supplant them with the functional equivalent thereof. Maybe McKinsey is right that "the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers." But if that's true, American education is in more trouble than we thought.

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