Seduction strategies for the third-year teacher

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Editorial by Kate Walsh

The most important research finding I've seen lately comes from a group of heavyweight economists studying teacher quality measures in Texas. As is the custom with economists, the finding of interest here was described with about as much fanfare as one would use to describe a trip to the dentist--don't economists realize the rest of the world relies on those all-important signals that something IMPORTANT is being SAID?! At any rate, this particular finding provides an important insight about the kinds of teachers that schools should try hardest to keep out of the classroom. Whereas once again we learn that uncertified teachers don't pose the grave threat that some would have us believe, the real problem is: The First-Year Teacher. It turns out that a first-year teacher, on average, is roughly half a standard deviation down in the quality distribution. In plain English, even those teachers who will end up being good with some experience are largely mediocre--at best--in the first year. First-year teachers who will be mediocre even with some experience are worse than bad--they're dreadful.

One school of thought would suggest that the reason first-year teachers are such a drain on efforts to raise student achievement is that we do a terrible job of preparing teachers. Others contest that it?s not possible to truly prepare a teacher for the classroom--the "learning-by-doing" school of thinking. I happen to think the answer is in the middle--that, while a good deal of teacher prep does little to alleviate the first-year hump, if teachers arrived truly knowing how to teach kids how to read and employ a few effective classroom management strategies, the ride might not be quite so bumpy.

Anyway, the implication here is that schools that have the fewest first-year teachers stand the most chance of raising student achievement. Perhaps NCLB's next definition of a highly qualified teacher ought to be revised to "Not New."

If you follow this insight to its policy implications, there are a number of conclusions:

* Obviously, first-year teachers ought not to teach alone.

* More practically, students should never be assigned to first-year teachers two years in a row.

* Enough talk: schools need to get serious about revising policies and compensation packages to keep teachers longer.

But how long is long enough? The study did contain some relatively good news: by the time the second year rolls around, some of the worst performers are gone, and the ones who remain have got some things figured out. They quickly become productive. Schools that can keep a teacher through at least two years gain some value.

Too much of the current discussion about solving teacher attrition focuses on how to return to a profession filled with "lifers." That just isn't likely to happen, not given today's marketplace and the flighty job trends of twentysomethings. Labor markets aside, there's also a lot to be said for the traditional elite private school model, consisting of a lot of youthful, fresh energy conjoined with a small corps of mature, seasoned professionals.

The real focus of policymakers ought to be on what is presumably a large sector of the potential teaching population: those teachers who could put in a great five years (conceding that one of the five years isn't all that great)--if anybody acted like they wanted them. We lose teachers after two years who, if we did a little smart thinking, could be persuaded to stay for three to five years.

Here are some strategies to consider:

* Suppress teacher salaries in the first year, trading in money going for salaries for more support to the teacher.

* Provide only a moderate increase between years one and two; schools don't want to discourage struggling, weak teachers from leaving.

* Give teachers a whopping pay increase in year 3, enough that it will make them think twice about quitting. Make it clear that entry into the third year is a significant milestone.

* Remember that it's not all about money. Convert the tenure process into a rigorous process that makes any teacher proud to be selected by the district.

* Better yet, distinguish acceptable from remarkable teachers during the tenure process, providing teachers in the upper tier--the ones you really, truly want to keep--with greater pay and a title connoting such distinction.

* Provide handsome pay increases for years 4 and 5 as well, making the automatic increases smaller thereafter.

* Erase salary increases that reward teachers for advanced degrees. Use the savings for the big pay bumps in years 3 through 5.

* Invest in a strong senior corps of teachers not via the uniform salary schedule, but by creating opportunities to earn more money by taking on greater teaching responsibilities and positions of honor.

* Shift some percentage of the resources currently being poured into pension plans into all of the above. Teachers in their third year of teaching aren't going to stay in teaching because the pension's good twenty years out, especially the way current teacher pensions are designed, which lock teachers into one school district.

An unrealistic list? In some districts these ideas would constitute heresy. But change of this nature is never likely to be global or systematic. All it takes is a few pioneers.