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Change the Conditions that Make High Need Schools Hard to Staff

by Tom Carroll & Soumya Sathya - July 22, 2008

As baby boomers begin to retire in the coming decade, the American education system will be forced to deal with the exodus of over half of its teacher workforce. With so many teachers expected to leave the classroom, we must redouble our efforts to keep high-quality teachers in high-need schools.

To close the student achievement gap we have to close the teaching quality gap

Teaching quality contributes more to student achievement than any other factor policy makers can control. But numerous studies have shown that students in high-need schools are more likely to have teachers who are less experienced, less qualified and less effective at increasing student achievement than their more affluent peers. High-need schools also have high teacher turnover and attrition. Many schools serving low-income students have teacher-dropout rates that are actually higher than their alarming student dropout rates. As a result of this turnover, high-need schools have a disproportionate concentration of inexperienced and under-prepared teachers, making it next-to-impossible to create and sustain the professional continuity, coherence, and community that are essential to improve student achievement.  

It is time to change this picture.

Policymakers searching for ways to attract good teachers to hard to staff schools should begin by changing the conditions that make these schools so hard to staff in the first place. It is important for them to remember that at the end of the day it will be the teachers who will make the decisions about where they will teach. Any policy change that strives to create a more equitable distribution of high-quality teachers must start by developing conditions that make teaching in a high-need school professionally attractive and personally rewarding.

Well-prepared teachers pay attention to a school’s culture and its working conditions - the opportunity to work in a school organized for success, where they can teach their students effectively, weighs heavily in their decision about where to work. Competent, caring, and idealistic teachers are more than willing to make a personal and professional commitment to meet the needs of high-need students. But if they are thrown sink-or-swim into poor working conditions, with inadequate leadership and little collegial support, they soon burn out and leave in search of a more supportive school environment or more rewarding career opportunities outside the teaching profession. In too many cases high-need schools have simply become high-turnover stepping stones for teachers on their way to high performing schools or other professions.

To narrow the teaching quality gap between high-poverty and low-poverty schools, education leaders must transform the culture of high-need schools using a comprehensive approach that targets both recruitment and retention.  

First, we should acknowledge the demands of teaching in a high-need school. To increase the number of well-qualified teachers who choose to teach in high-need schools, school districts should provide increased compensation and other financial incentives commensurate with the challenges of their work. The Education Sector’s recent report Waiting to be Won Over found that eighty percent of teachers support financial incentives for teachers who work in low-performing schools. Paying teachers more to serve in high-need schools and disciplines is an appropriate step and one that teachers support.  

Pay matters. But increased compensation alone is not enough. Recruitment incentives and bonuses may attract teachers to high-need schools, but they won’t stay long enough to build a culture of success in those schools if they are met with inadequate leadership and unacceptable teaching conditions.  

Meeting the learning needs of today’s diverse students is a demanding job that no teacher should be expected to do alone. It is time to recognize that quality teaching is not an individual accomplishment. Good teaching is a team sport. These six words should guide us as we work to transform high-need schools into genuine learning organizations. Stand-alone teachers delivering passive text-based instruction in self-contained classrooms will not meet the needs of today’s students or today’s teachers. Schools where teachers share best practices, knowledge, skills, and accountability for all students’ success foster an environment where good teachers become great teachers and where student learning thrives.

School districts and schools of education can better prepare teachers to teach in high-need schools by embedding their preparation in strong school-based learning communities where they are given the support they need to succeed. Teaching residencies in cities such as Boston and Chicago are proving to be particularly effective in giving future teachers extensive clinical experience prior to becoming the teacher of record in a classroom. Quality mentoring and induction programs that ensure that new teachers are immersed in professional learning communities are effective “next steps” in supporting and retaining these new teachers. Through effective mentoring and induction programs, new teachers develop a large professional network of colleagues they can turn to for ongoing guidance, support, and continued professional growth after the formal program ends.

Teachers want to work in a professional atmosphere in which their accomplishments are valued and their opinions matter. The National Center for Education Statistics’ 2007 Teacher Attrition and Mobility report found that over half of former teachers who left the teaching profession left for positions that gave them greater voice and more autonomy in their work. High-need schools can become genuine learning organizations if they cultivate the professional culture that teachers crave; they will retain strong teachers and thus enable them to build the strong collaborative relationships that are necessary to improve student achievement.  

In addition, strong learning communities create career paths that provide new teachers with rewarding opportunities for continuous professional growth. For example, in a school that has become a genuine learning organization, novice teachers might have a decreased teaching load that allows them to observe master teachers and enables them to collaborate with colleagues to develop lessons. As their teaching expertise grows, these teachers would assume progressively greater responsibilities. Some may aspire to become master teachers who would work as mentors to novice teachers or play a larger role in curriculum development. The National Institute for Excellence in Teaching’s Teacher Advancement Program (TAP), which has been implemented in numerous schools across the nation, is having considerable success in developing such career advancement pathways. Master and mentor teachers at TAP schools are selected through a rigorous selection and training process that enables them to take an active role in evaluating and supporting teachers in their schools. By giving teachers more control over their work and increased opportunities for growth, schools can build a cadre of teacher leaders who have a stake in staying in and improving their current school.

As baby boomers begin to retire in the coming decade, the American education system will be forced to deal with the exodus of over half of its teacher workforce. With so many teachers expected to leave the classroom, we must redouble our efforts to keep high-quality teachers in high-need schools. Education is fortunate – the individuals who choose to teach do so out of a deep commitment to making a difference in the lives of students. It is time to respect that commitment by working with teachers to organize their schools for success, compensating them for assuming challenging positions and rewarding them for the contributions they make to students most in need of great teaching. Teachers are the ones who ultimately decide where they teach – let’s give them a reason to join us in transforming high-need schools into genuine learning organizations.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 22, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15317, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 2:03:25 AM

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About the Author
  • Tom Carroll
    National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future
    TOM CARROLL leads NCTAF in its mission to empower educators who are transforming their schools from teaching organizations into learning organizations. Tom founded the Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology (“PT3”) program, and created the Technology Innovation Challenge Grants Program at U.S. Ed. He was the first Director of Technology Planning and Evaluation for the E-Rate program. He served as the U.S. Secretary of Education’s liaison to the Corporation for National Service during the launch of AmeriCorps. He was Deputy Director of the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, prior to which he was Director of National Research Centers and Regional Laboratories at the National Institute of Education (NIE). He taught and did research in the School of Education at Clark University, and holds a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from SUNY Buffalo. He served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Lesotho from 1967 -1969. NCTAF publications are at: www.nctaf.org.
  • Soumya Sathya
    National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future
    E-mail Author
    SOUMYA SATHYA is a program manager at NCTAF, where she manages the NCTAF state coalition network and the daily operations of project activities with the goal of advocating for quality teaching in schools organized for success. Prior to joining NCTAF, she was as a policy intern at the Alliance for Excellent Education. A certified teacher in both Maryland and Virginia, she has been a math teacher in public schools in Prince George's County, Maryland, and Fairfax County, Virginia. She began her career as an IT consultant in the private sector before deciding to focus her efforts on improving the quality of education for all children. She has earned a B.A. in Cognitive Science and an M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Virginia. She is currently pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree with a concentration in policy analysis and evaluation from George Washington University.
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