A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to speak—at the invitation of the Center for Teaching Quality and the National Education Association—to an audience of educational policymakers in DC on Capitol Hill. The topic of the briefing was the challenges of recruiting and retaining teachers in high needs schools.

Needless to say, I was pretty geeked. It’s not every day that a guy who is “just a teacher” has the ear of those who make decisions that shape our work. I was proud of myself, though—there was no “Shriek Heard ‘Round the World” from me!

Here’s what I said….Tell me what you think:

First, let me thank you for coming today to allow your thinking to be shaped by the voice of classroom teachers. As a passionate advocate for education, I’ve always believed that the best policies are those that are informed by practitioners because we possess a nuanced understanding of the culture of schools, and can quickly identify policy weaknesses that won’t translate easily into our profession.

The issue of recruiting teachers to our highest needs schools is no exception. Understanding the importance of ensuring that schools of poverty are served by our most accomplished educators, decision makers are working diligently to craft policies to recruit teachers to the schools that need them the most. Those policies, however, tend to be under informed, over relying on alternative compensation models that incentivize work in high priority buildings.

Now don’t get me wrong: I am a firm believer that the time has come to restructure teacher compensation in America.

But I also believe—based on my work with over 1,700 National Board Certified Teachers in five states on behalf of the Center for Teaching Quality, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the National Education Association and the Teacher Leaders Network—that new salary structures alone will not solve the staffing challenges faced by schools serving poor communities. In fact, while accomplished teachers rightfully expect additional compensation for accepting challenging assignments, financial incentives are rarely cited as the most important factor in a teacher’s decision to work with children of poverty.

You see, our most accomplished educators rarely make decisions about where to work based on the socioeconomic status of their students. Instead, we’re thoughtful and dynamic, driven by the desire to examine and perfect our craft. We are motivated by opportunities to reach our peak performance levels. As a result, schools with poor working conditions—regardless of the student population that they serve—rarely have a strong core of highly adept teachers and have little capacity to attract them.

So, which working conditions matter the most to teachers considering a move to a high needs building?

When highly accomplished teachers are asked to rank the top five factors that most influence their decisions about where to work, good principals inevitably end up on top of the list, followed by the opportunity to work with other skilled colleagues, having reasonable class sizes and student loads, and having access to instructional resources like science labs and classroom libraries. Financial incentives routinely finish in last place on the list.

These findings have been confirmed time and again in data points collected from the almost 250,000 teachers in ten states that completed a teacher working conditions survey since 2004. Analysis by the Center for Teaching Quality has shown that school leadership, professional development and empowerment are all strongly connected to student achievement and teacher retention. Additional findings include:

  1. That schools reporting high levels of trust between faculty members are better able to help students learn.
  2. That principals and teachers have greatly different perceptions about the presence of essential working conditions.

What implications do these findings have for policymakers?

The National Board Certified Teachers of North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Washington and Ohio brainstormed a list of over 80 recommendations that are currently being used to drive change in their respective communities over the past two years. Some of the recommendations that seemed to translate across state boundaries included:

  1. Invest in principal professional development programs that show school leaders how to better use accomplished teachers as change agents at the local level. NBCTs often report feeling undervalued and underutilized by their building administrators.
  2. Provide time and training to teachers who accept positions in high needs communities. Meeting the academic and social demands of children living in poverty requires a set of skills that few educators automatically possess. Opportunities to engage in high quality, teacher driven professional development during the course of the school day and year will ensure that teachers feel success with economically and culturally diverse student populations.
  3. Develop a range of financial incentives designed to attract teachers to high needs buildings. While salary supplements may appeal to young educators interested in raising their base pay, more experienced teachers are motivated by tax breaks, college tuition credits or additional years towards retirement. By developing a menu of incentives that teachers can choose from, we respect the personal and professional differences of our best educators.
  4. Create hybrid roles that allow accomplished teachers to work part time in the classroom with students and part time beyond the classroom supporting colleagues as mentors and curriculum leaders. By doing so, we make what has become a stale profession more appealing to educators passionate about continued growth.
  5. Begin using teacher working conditions as an indicator of school success on par with Annual Yearly Progress. By doing so, we focus attention on the significant connections between essential working conditions and student learning.

In the end, if there was one thing that accomplished teachers wanted you to take back to your work as education’s decision makers, it would be that we have a responsibility to ensure that every child in America—including those living in poverty—has a great teacher. Meeting that responsibility, however, will require sophisticated solutions for what are very real and very complex problems.

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