Myths behind the Career Ladder: rungs and hoops

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Many a conversation about teacher quality bandies about the wonderful possibilities of the Career Ladder. The theory is that effective teachers would be more likely to stay in the classroom if there were a ladder within the profession allowing them to take on more varied roles, receiving enhanced titles and bonuses to match.

A recent newspaper story out of Delaware caught our eye, as it highlighted how little states have done in this area, suggesting perhaps that there is no there there when it comes to career ladders.

New Mexico is the classic case. The state hypes its "three-tiered licensure system" as a sort of career ladder, when in fact it's ... a three-tiered licensure system. Tiered licensure is already the overwhelmingly popular approach to structuring the teaching career, of course: every state has different levels of certification, usually tied to tenure, professional development, and/or attainment of a master's degree.

New Mexico's system requires a minimum salary at each level of licensure, which is fine as far as it goes but hardly represents a substantive departure from the status quo. What New Mexico does try to do differently is to tie its licensure tiers to teachers' effectiveness. Its criteria for determining effectiveness are better than those found in many states, but they still don't meet the basic minimum standard of requiring student learning to be the preponderant focus of effectiveness. In fact, it's not apparent how New Mexico's system does anything to encourage any real differentiation between teachers--in their roles, titles, or pay (apart from locking in minimum base salaries, which can surely be done without the pretense of a "ladder").

Iowa's "career ladder" system is a lot like the state's performance-pay initiative, in that it's been talked about but never implemented. As in New Mexico, however, it's unclear what would make this system different from the standard tiered licensure if it were implemented. What are Iowa's different "paths"? There's just one path, actually, in which a new teacher starts as a "beginner teacher," and then moves onto being a "career teacher." After that comes "career teacher II" and finally, "advanced teacher." Hmmmm ... if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it still must be a duck--or, in this case, teacher certification.

A look at the Singapore system may suggest real innovation. In that nation, master teachers are appointed for special three-year terms to introduce new curricula and teaching methods to entire groups of schools. The program is selective, well defined, and gives teachers a chance to hone their leadership skills. Giving teachers fancy new titles and bumps in the salary schedule for doing things they're already doing, on the other hand, looks more like a glass ceiling than a ladder.