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Tapping teacher expertise (what we haven’t tried)

Sometimes it seems like America has tried everything. Various flavors of school reform have come and gone, often without securing real or lasting improvements for students. But there’s one thing we haven’t tried (not on a widespread basis, anyway): fully tapping the expertise of our nation’s accomplished teachers.

Our most effective teachers possess a wealth of knowledge and experience could be applied to the pressing problems faced by our schools. And students do not have to “lose” their best teachers (as is so often the case now when teachers are promoted into full-time administrative roles).  Instead, we can design roles that allow teachers to advance their careers by spending part of their time working with students—and part of their time on innovative efforts to improve teaching and learning.     

Our public schools need more of these teacherpreneurs, expert teachers who keep one foot in the classroom while also pursuing results-oriented projects:

  1. Leading peer review processes for their schools to ensure that teaching evaluations are valid and drive improvement;
  2. Developing tools and strategies for teaching the Googled learner who has grown up experiencing virtual reality;
  3. Taking part in assessment reforms such as those linked to the new Common Core standards, and using technology to better capture, analyze, and publicize data about schools’ effectiveness;
  4. Identifying effective strategies for teaching students who are increasingly diverse — by 2030, 40% or more will be second-language learners;
  5. Organizing school-neighborhood partnerships that can support student learning through cradle-to-college solutions; and
  6. Transforming unions so that they become self-policing professional guilds that help ensure the quality of teaching that students deserve.

This list is not comprehensive. It’s just a sneak peek of the important work that “teacherpreneurs” could perform—while continuing to teach students for at least part of their day, week, or year. (For more on the teacherpreneur concept, see chapter 6 of TEACHING 2030, a book I coauthored with twelve talented classroom teachers.)

Investing in Teacherpreneurs

Unfortunately, teachers’ salaries remain too low to attract and retain enough talented, well-prepared professionals to fill our nation’s high-needs classrooms — much less to cultivate the 600,000 teacherpreneurs we call for in TEACHING 2030. Unlike in other top performing nations, teachers in the U.S. are considerably underpaid, compared to other professionals with similar training and responsibility. American teachers are paid, on average, 60 percent less than other comparable college graduates.

But investing in expert teachers isn’t just about salaries—it’s about how the work and the school day are structured. Other top-performing nations invest in teachers by expecting more administrators to teach so teachers can lead. U.S. teachers teach students about 80% of their total working time—while their international counterparts spend about 60% of their time teaching, with the remainder of the time spend planning lessons and fulfilling leadership responsibilities.

America’s top-down model of managing schools has led us to allocate resources less effectively than we otherwise could. Of the 70,000 employees of the Los Angeles Unified School District, only 50% are practicing teachers. Embracing teacher leadership—creating roles that enable teachers to guide and add value to their schools—could help us put our education dollars to better use.

Finally, we must take a good long look at how our investment in expert teachers compares to what we spend on other efforts. Consider the war the United States is waging in Afghanistan, which is expected to cost $113 billion this next fiscal year, according to The Washington Post. As Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, noted, “It is fundamentally unsustainable to continue spending $10 billion a month on a massive military operation with no end in sight.”

Could the costs of war be applied to lowering the federal deficit? Could we apply a small fraction of the savings to funding our public schools in ways that meet children’s needs? Creating and funding roles for expert teachers is a wise investment—and one that is critical to safeguarding America’s future.

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