Recruiting and Retaining Teachers:  An Economist’s Approach

Recruiting and Retaining Teachers: An Economist’s Approach

“We should be doing everything we can to try to have the best teachers in American classrooms….the systems we  currently  have in place, for various reasons, don’t really achieve that goal.”  Raj Chetty, William A. Ackman Professor of Economics, Harvard University

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Last time I wrote about some intriguing research being done by Raj Chetty measuring the long-term impact of Kindergarten placement on low-income children.   He’s doing some other interesting work on how neighborhood or city may affect economic mobility, which is a fun rabbit hole to go down if you have some time.  But most interesting to me is his take on what we need to do to recruit and keep quality teachers.  His ideas are both sensible and timely in light of the number of teachers leaving the field (Spoiler:  he mentions Finland).

Many, many groups have proposed running education like a business.  Teachers, in this model, must offer value to the company by improving test scores and for those scores they receive merit pay.  The argument against this has always been that children are not like machine parts; you can’t simply input information and automatically get out good test scores.  No one actually in education would argue with this:  any number of factors mitigate against student success at any given time, many of which are outside the control of the teacher.

Chetty cites the reputation teaching has in the U.S. as a major issue with school success.  He notes that in high-achieving countries (Finland!), students doing well in school aspire to be teachers — it’s a high status, desirable job. Contrast that with the U.S., where teaching is sometimes the ‘last resort’ job,  reserved for when other avenues don’t pan out.

Chetty draws a distinction between artificial boosting of test scores in a single year and actual, persistent learning.  Scores in a single year aren’t necessarily meaningful; more important is long term impact on learning.  That’s when teachers should be rewarded.  Here I would interject a question:  how can you measure long term impact from a single teacher if the student has a strong, experienced teacher one year and a substandard teacher the next?  To combat the less-than-desirable tendency to teach to the test, Chetty says test scores are useful information but have to be incorporated with other factors when making decisions.

He offers one comparison with the business model that I find particularly interesting:  districts should function more like businesses when trying to retain good teachers.  In business, when an employee is particularly valuable there are many ways the company can sweeten the deal to retain that talent:  promotion, raise, expanded autonomy, perks like cars and phones.  This is where the business model in education is more stick than carrot:  if it exists at all, the pool of rewards is small and difficult to attain.  If a teacher decides to leave education for the private sector, no one, not even his colleagues, will fault his decision.  When I was still teaching, a member of my department (high school English) left education to drive a beer delivery truck, the kind that goes around to big box stores and replenishes their stock.  Why?  More money and better hours.  Seriously.  I’ve not witnessed many districts that go out of their way to try to keep people who decide to leave.  In some cases, people should leave, but in others the system loses a talented teacher who is capable of the kind of long-term impacts on student learning that are so critical.  My kids’ high school is losing their Computer Science teacher at the end of this year — a man who has demonstrably reached kids and influenced their career paths — and the only response to his resignation has been a kind of fatalistic “what can you do?” shrug by school administrators.

What Chetty is calling for represents a paradigm shift for U.S. education, one in which we don’t just say we value teachers, we put our money where our mouth is and pay them commensurate with their importance to our society and our children’s futures. And we institute policies and protocols that demonstrably increase the prestige and desirability of teaching as a career path.  And we do all in our power to retain those individuals who are making a difference in kids’ ability to learn.

You  can listen to  Hidden Brain’s interview with Chetty and hear more of his ideas on how we can take action to solve this and other issues here: Zipcode Destiny.  For some other ideas on how to retain good teachers, check out Education Week’s Special Report on Teacher Retention for 2018.  Some really interesting ideas, ranging from provided childcare to expanded PD.

The Downside of Hands-on Learning
The $300,000 Kindergarten Teacher

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