Blame is no substitute for constructive public policy
The blame game rarely works when it comes to finding good solutions to complex issues. One such issue is how to ensure that every child has access to an effective teacher.
There is little disagreement that effective teachers are the most important resource a school has for educating its children. The literature is full of evidence that the quality of the classroom teacher makes a huge difference to student learning, especially for children who have limited support at home. Creating a supply of effective teachers is a great way to improve student outcomes.
There are plenty of voices suggesting that teachers are incompetent, underworked and overpaid. Their plan for improving student achievement is to fire bad teachers, cut their pay, and give unregulated charter schools more opportunities to use public money. To me, this exemplifies the blaming approach, and the real goal is to cut spending; it's not a path to more effective public schools.
Firing bad teachers is not a plan for creating a supply of highly effective teachers.
While widespread layoffs of teachers due to deep cuts in public school funding is creating a temporary supply of out-of-work experienced teachers, that is not a long-term solution to having a pool of high quality teachers for every classroom. Our population is growing and the baby boomer teacher corps is leaving in droves. The problem isn’t our inability to weed out a few bad apples; the policy problem is a looming shortage.
One rule of thumb in teacher development circles is that it takes about five years of classroom experience for teachers to master the vast array of skills that make up the portfolio of an effective teacher. As Cleveland Heights teacher leader Laurel Chapman explains it, “There is expertise that can’t be front loaded in a teacher preparation program.” While it takes time to master the complex work of teaching, the supply of effective new teachers is stymied by a high attrition rate in the early years. About half of new teachers leave by the fifth year. The main cause: frustration with their own lack effectiveness.
The medical profession uses residency programs to develop new doctors by having them work with patients under the tutelage of experienced physicians. Fortunately, we are now applying this model to the teaching profession, and it is working.
In 2002, the Ohio legislature mandated that local school districts implement programs to ease new teachers into the real work of the classroom. Our local school district has fully embraced this strategy and is having great results. New teachers are learning, sticking with teaching and thriving. Next year, Ohio is slated to turn the entry-year program into a four-year residency program. Deborah Delisle, former state superintendent, included this initiative in Ohio’s Race to the Top proposal. If the initiative survives Ohio’s change in leadership, new teachers will receive the support that should translate into an even larger pool of effective teachers.
Giving every student access to a great education depends on giving them great teachers. Blame will not improve outcomes. Mentoring programs are proving that investing in new teachers will.
Susie Kaeser is a 30 year resident of Cleveland Heights, former director of Reaching Heights, and recently joined the board of trustees of the Home Repair Resource Center.