Attracting Talent to the Classroom-1

In my last post I wrote about witnessing the frightening gulf in outcomes for children who have access to a great education and those who don’t. I also said that I have had the opportunity to see children getting a good education in vastly different settings.

Regardless of the school, it doesn’t take long for the visitor to recognize that the very obvious difference between the successful classrooms and the failing ones is the teaching. This is not news. Over and over we see that excellent results are achieved when schools can choose to hire the best teachers. Decades of research confirm the impact of good teachers on student outcomes, the paucity of good teachers in the neediest schools, and the problems in both the teacher preparation and the public education systems that discourage the top college graduates from seeking a career in teaching (It’s worth downloading “Good Teaching Matters- A Lot”,  Kati Haycock’s 1998 review of value-added research available at the time. ) While Congress continues its attempts to muster the bipartisan support to pass an overhaul of NCLB, I thought it would be a good time to examine some of the latest efforts to address one of the greatest obstacles to quality education in America: attracting the top individuals into the teaching profession.

Nearly 30 years elapsed between the publication of “A Nation at Risk,” in 1983, whose authors worried that too many teachers were drawn from the bottom quarter of their high school and college classes, and “Closing the Talent Gap”, a report published by McKinsey & Co. last year that made the same point. Until recently, the only notable attempts to attract the top students into teaching were Wendy Kopp’s Teach For America and its offshoots.

It has now been more than 20 years since the “nation’s most promising future leaders” of the original Teach For America corps entered public school classrooms in low-performing urban communities.  While some may continue to debate the premise of a two-year commitment, the effectiveness of TFA corps members as teachers and TFA’s alternative certification process, one thing is certain: Teach For America has succeeded in luring some of the nation’s top college graduates into a profession they typically ignored in favor of the higher monetary rewards of Wall Street, law or medicine.

Can the teaching profession learn from TFA’s recruitment methods to attract enough high-quality individuals to effect a substantial impact on public education? In other words, can teacher preparation programs and the teaching profession appeal to an elite group of individuals who perceive the profession as highly respected and worthwhile, even if not highly financially remunerative?

According to the McKinsey study, which looked at teaching  in the world’s top education systems, the difference between their educational outcomes and ours is not surprising.  The three highest-ranked countries recruit teaching candidates from the top of their university classes, attracting them with subsidized and meaningful teacher preparation, ongoing professional support, high pay, and universal respect for the profession. In these countries the brightest students enter the teaching profession with the same frequency that ours pursue MDs, JDs and MBAs.

Is this image of the teaching profession possible in the U.S.?  To be explored in my next post.

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