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Invest Wisely in Better Teachers

The latest national teacher survey brings tough news. Previous research shows that a good teacher is the single most important in-school factor in improving student achievement, but this latest report reveals that the teaching profession in the United States is deeply troubled.

According to the bellwether MetLife Survey of the American Teacher released last week, teacher job satisfaction has dropped from 59 percent to 44 percent just in the last two years, to the lowest level in more than two decades. At the same time, the number of teachers who say they are planning to leave the profession has doubled in the past three years; three out of 10 public school teachers are now looking to take their talents elsewhere.

We are not alarmists, but we believe the combination of decreasing satisfaction and indications of increasing turnover raises serious concerns about the future of the teaching profession. These data suggest that we are actually losing ground on recruiting and retaining top teaching talent.

The root of the problem is the convergence of two powerful forces. The first is that many of the nation’s fastest-growing job categories require more education and more advanced skills and knowledge than ever. So it is essential that our schools perform at higher levels than have ever been expected of them. Graduation rates and student achievement must rise dramatically.


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The second force is the economic recession, which is requiring states to make substantial budget cuts. Since education is such a major portion of their spending, it cannot be exempt. Connecting the budget and dissatisfaction dots of the survey data, it’s clear that teachers are bearing the brunt of these cuts.

The result is that at precisely the moment we expect and need more from our schools, they are being subjected to deep and debilitating cuts, producing declines in teacher staffing, down-scaled programs, loss of services, increasing class sizes and fewer opportunities to update teacher skills. In other words, schools are being asked to perform at new heights using resources that are at new lows. It’s no wonder that teachers are frustrated.

So what do we do?

Let’s start with improving teaching and recruiting the best candidates. A September 2010 report from consulting giant McKinsey & Company shows that top-performing countries such as Finland, South Korea and Singapore have no trouble attracting their nation’s top college graduates into teaching jobs. All of their teachers come from the top third of their graduating classes, compared with 23 percent of teachers in the United States who do so.

The long-overdue focus on robust professional development and quality evaluation must continue, but that’s only part of the solution. To bring in the talent we need, we must also upgrade teacher preparation and induction programs to make them worthy of high achievers. That means supporting scholarship programs targeted at attracting the best students to teaching, raising the quality of teacher education at the nation’s universities, creating more high-quality clinical experiences and residencies, extending and enhancing student-teaching experiences with the kinds of students they will teach, building in mentorships with master teachers for the first three years, and placing teachers in schools with strong instructional leadership.

That way, when the nation’s economic growth kicks into higher gear and funding returns to the nation’s schools, we’ll have high-quality, highly trained teachers both in the classroom and in the pipeline, ready to maximize resources and leverage their upgraded expertise.

All this will cost money, but it will also save money: Using estimates from the Department of Labor that attrition costs an employer 30 percent of the leaving employee’s salary, a 2004 analysis by the Alliance for Excellent Education calculated that the nationwide cost of teacher turnover, not including retirements, at least $4.9 billion every year.

We also need to spend our education funding more effectively. For example, the 2010 McKinsey report says that the United States could more than double the proportion of top graduates who teach without raising pay by subsidizing teacher-preparation tuition, creating more effective administration and training opportunities in high-need schools, improving working conditions, and providing performance bonuses.

The MetLife survey results are a warning bell. The future of our country is dependent on the quality of our schools and our teachers. As a nation, we acknowledge this rhetorically, but our education policies and practices too often move us in the opposite direction. We need to change this if we want the economic prosperity that rises with the quality of our education. We need to stop pretending that it somehow doesn’t matter who teaches our children and start investing wisely in a new generation of teaching excellence.

Richard W. Riley, a former U.S. secretary of Education and former governor of South Carolina, is a senior partner with EducationCounsel, LLC and co-chairman of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, in Washington, D.C. Arthur Levine, a former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.