Transforming teaching in California

By Anna Martin & Barnett Berry

Education reform typically follows an unfortunate pattern. Politicians and pundits drive the agendas, while students and teachers live out the consequences.

To better address our schools’ needs, reform efforts must be led by those who work with students every day. At an event in Sacramento last month, teachers like Anna Martin offered practical recommendations for improving teaching quality in California.

Anna entered the profession eight years ago as a Teach For America recruit—and she’s still teaching at the same high-needs school. She’s a member of the  New Millennium Initiative (NMI), a national network of forward-thinking teachers supported by the Center for Teaching Quality.

At the event in Sacramento, Anna and her NMI colleagues shared findings from their new report, “Many Ways Up, No Reason to Move Out.”

What follows is a chat between Anna and Barnett Berry.

Barnett:  Anna, you’ve seen many early-career teachers leave the profession. In high-needs schools, 50 percent depart within three years. Why?

Anna: Our NMI team cares deeply about such statistics—we’ve all seen it happen. Some teachers are overwhelmed: they haven’t been prepared or supported adequately for the challenges they face. Others are frustrated by the one-track nature of the profession.

Barnett: What do you mean by “one-track”?

Anna: In most cases, the only options are to remain a classroom teacher—or leave the classroom for an administrative role. Many teachers, like myself, want to be challenged, show leadership, and have an impact beyond one classroom. But we are also passionate about teaching. We don’t want to leave the classroom entirely.

Barnett: It sounds like you’d advocate for more teacherpreneurs who split their time between teaching students and leading efforts to improve schools.

Anna: Absolutely. Our NMI team’s new report proposes radical changes in how we prepare, promote, and retain teachers. That includes developing more hybrid positions that make the most of teachers’ expertise. We hope talented teachers will stay in the profession longer and become the leaders of our education system.

Barnett:  You mentioned that some early-career teachers leave because they weren’t adequately prepared. What needs to change?

Anna: We ask too much of our newest teachers and too little of our veterans. Our team proposes a three-year apprenticeship model. Novice teachers would be paired with master mentor teachers. Over time, the novice teachers would take on more responsibility—similar to the medical residency model.

Such a system would help prevent early career burnout. Novice teachers would gain practical experience and develop critical teaching skills before taking charge of their own classroom. And veteran teachers would have opportunities for leadership and influence. Most important, students would benefit from these changes.

Barnett: In other top-performing nations, most administrators teach something, sharing leadership. And in Singapore, some accomplished teachers’ salaries are higher than their principals’.  

Anna: Right now in California, teachers earn more primarily by staying on the job longer. We’re proposing a model that ties salary increases to increases in demonstrated skill, responsibilities, and impact. This new career ladder will allow teachers to specialize and follow different leadership, mentoring, and specialization tracks. So they’ll continue to teach—but also can take on different kinds of roles that help schools better serve students.

Barnett: Blurring the distinction between those who teach in schools and those who lead them!

Anna: Yes. And improving what we can provide to students. Better using our schools’ human capital would help us to attract and retain the talented professionals our students need and deserve.

Barnett: I think Californians are ready for these transformative changes. In a recent statewide poll, most Californians (77 percent) rated teachers favorably. And 64 percent said they were willing to pay more in taxes to increase school funding.

Anna: Yes, Californians realize today’s students will be the workers and leaders of our state tomorrow. They also know that teachers—not politicians, administrators, or reformers—are the people most likely to help their children succeed. They should expect and demand that California attract, prepare, support, and retain talented teachers.

Barnett: So, as a teacher, you’re saying it’s time for big, bold changes?

Anna: Absolutely. We can’t be satisfied with isolated reforms. It’s time to transform California’s schools by transforming the teaching profession.