Here’s How We Can Attract, Prepare and Support Teachers to Improve Student Outcomes

Feb 21, 2020 12:00:00 AM


Becoming a teacher isn’t sexy. For one, there is no economic incentive; for many people, completing teacher preparation programs means taking on even more student debt than they already have, particularly since the federal government has essentially gutted the scholarship and loan forgiveness programs for prospective teachers.

In addition, the average teaching salary is $39, 249, so that even though pathways to other professions also come with student debt, their comparative salaries, $50,000 for engineers, $300,000 for a doctor, and $120,000 for lawyers, make such occupations far more palatable. Imagine telling a young person to become a teacher. They could very rightly say, “You want me to take on more loans to get an insanely difficult job with crappy pay? Um, no thanks.”

This lack of economic incentive means that many of the best and brightest choose professions other than teaching. [pullquote]Instead of making teaching more attractive, we have largely simply made it easier to become a teacher.[/pullquote] Indeed, in many states, teachers are offered emergency certification that allows them to teach a full load of students without having completed even a semester of teacher education.

While the intent behind these initiatives, to address teacher shortages and fill gaping teacher vacancies, is pure, the effects are not. The best and brightest teachers who do join the ranks of teachers are funneled into the districts and communities that can offer the best pay, usually districts serving wealthy families. Because of this, “most public school teachers who are not fully credentialed, or who enter through alternatives where they train on-the-job, teach in low-income and minority schools in poor rural and urban communities.”

Not only is teaching therefore not attractive and thus perpetuating educational inequities, for those who do enter teacher prep programs, what they learn is subject to where they’re located and where they go to school. This lack of universal standardization has led to teacher colleges being rightly criticized for inadequate academic preparation, as well as failing to prepare teachers for the classroom.  

In short, [pullquote]we don’t know what teacher preparation programs we want because we don’t know what sort of teachers we want.[/pullquote]

Sharing What Works 

It is, therefore, no surprise that there is little to no cross dialogue between K-12 schools on how to share best practices between schools that serve similar student populations.

So, what are some other countries doing that seems to work?

For starters, other countries make teaching an attractive option by ensuring pay is high and that prep programs, while rigorous and selective, aren’t financially burdensome. Finland, for example, combines fully funded education with rigorous selection processes to ensure that only the best and brightest become teachers.

Meanwhile, in Singapore, teacher salaries have been raised to match other professions and loan forgiveness programs have been instituted to make becoming a teacher more attractive.

In addition, The Netherlands has taken the next step of not just ensuring that there are incentives to become a teacher, but also that teacher preparation programs reflect the reality of what new teachers will face in their classrooms by attacking what is known as ‘reality shock.’ Students in teacher prep programs complete “institution-based projects which are designed to be strongly connected to tasks that teachers have to perform in the school, and school-based professional practice, in which student teachers have to gradually take on more and more teaching responsibility and to carry out relatively complex tasks that fit in with the objectives of the school.”

In Ontario, Canada, an ingenious approach to sharing best practices has allowed successful schools to mentor less successful schools that serve similar student populations. The theory behind this approach is that “everything that needed to be done in schools was being done somewhere among Ontario’s nearly 5,000 schools. Schools that accelerated student achievement were dubbed “‘Lighthouse Schools’ and were publicized and given additional funds to share their good practices with other schools.”  

Thankfully, this idea is already taking root in the US, thanks to Networks for School Improvement, an initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,

There Are Things We Can Do Right Now

So, what do we do?

The first thing we need to understand is that we cannot copy and paste our way into educational Eden. We are not Finland with an overwhelmingly homogenous population. We are not Singapore, a country of only 5 million people that was founded in the 1960s and viewed educational development as a means of national survival. We aren’t the Netherlands, with its long history of fully funded education, nor are we Ontario, Canada, (although perhaps we could be, since Ontario is the most similar to the United States of the countries discussed).

Understanding these limitations, there are things we can do.

  1. Make teaching attractive again! Ensure that all teachers earn at least $60,000 a year, just above the median national income,  while ensuring that pathways to becoming a teacher are rigorous, selective and funded with forgivable loans that can be waived after a five-year commitment to the classroom.
  2. Make teacher education applicable! Ensure that all teacher education provides a comprehensive blend of education theory, pedagogical practice and community learning. Ensure that teachers must complete portfolio based projects that demonstrate their educational effectiveness, community-based projects that build their proficiency with the neighborhood in which they are teaching, as well as a research project that prepares them to be drivers of education practice and policy.
  3. Make effective schools share what works! Ontario’s “Lighthouse School” initiative just makes sense. If a school that serves a specific population is successful, ensure that there are sustainable pathways for them to share these practices with other schools that serve similar populations, but are struggling to do so. The solutions to our educational woes are not likely to be found in wonk factories, and in all likelihood, they are already in practice in schools across the country. Find those schools and those teachers, and share what they are doing with the rest of us!

None of this is easy. All of this requires work and sacrifice. But we need it, and we need it now.

Zachary Wright 

Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating classes. Wright was a national finalist for the 2018 U.S. Department of Education's School Ambassador Fellowship, and he was named Philadelphia's Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 2013. During his more than 10 years in Philadelphia classrooms, Wright created a relationship between Philadelphia's Mastery Schools and the University of Vermont that led to the granting of near-full-ride college scholarships for underrepresented students. And he participated in the fight for equitable education funding by testifying before Philadelphia's Board of Education and in the Pennsylvania State Capitol rotunda. Wright has been recruited by Facebook and Edutopia to speak on digital education. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, he organized demonstrations to close the digital divide. His writing has been published by The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Citizen, Chalkbeat, Education Leadership, and numerous education blogs. Wright lives in Collingswood, New Jersey, with his wife and two sons. Read more about Wright's work and pick up a copy of his new book, " Dismantling A Broken System; Actions to Close the Equity, Justice, and Opportunity Gaps in American Education"—now available for pre-order!

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