It’s the Teachers, Stupid

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It has taken long enough, but the people responsible for setting the nation’s pace on education policy seem to have finally figured out what’s most important. We need better teachers and more of them to go around.

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan get it. And so does Michelle Rhee, D.C.’s chancellor of public schools. Obama and Duncan want to spread quality teachers around more fairly and, like Rhee, boost salaries to keep them in the classroom and attract others of high caliber. Headed in the same direction is a new charter school that laid out $125,000 salaries to recruit faculty all-stars to teach mostly low-income Latinos in New York City.

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Still, hardly anyone in education will speak the expensive truth: There aren’t enough good teachers to go around, so they get rationed. Who’s going to replace those all-stars going to that new charter school?

It may be obvious that teachers are the most important adults in any school system. But if it’s so obvious, why have governors, mayors, school superintendents, members of Congress, education secretaries and—dare I say—presidents been focused for so long on every level of school management except the one that counts the most?

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For over 30 years, I’ve reported on education, and I have watched the waves of management “reforms” come and go. There have been magnet schools, schools-within-schools, charter schools, private schools via vouchers and school-based management programs. Some big-city districts have created neighborhood sub-districts.

But these solutions only change the central office. All these so-called reforms are irrelevant because whatever their effects, they do not change students’ experiences in the classroom. Teachers transform students, not the schools’ leadership structure.

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I have often said that I’d take a good faculty with a bad principal over a bad faculty with a good principal. A poor principal can’t stop capable teachers from doing their best for students. But, a talented principal can’t possibly compensate for all the failings of teachers who don’t know what they’re doing.

Parents already know this. When a child comes home from the first day at school, how many parents ask first, “How do you like your principal?”

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To be clear, I’m not blaming teachers for the failings of urban public schools. The country actually has a better teaching corps than it deserves, given the low pay and limited autonomy granted these college-educated professionals.

Obama and Duncan should follow through on the plan to pay bonuses to teachers who work in schools serving low-income students, many also African-American or Latino. Right now, these schools have too many inexperienced teachers.

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For what they’re paid, experienced teachers tend to opt to work in other schools where students bring to class fewer family and social problems. Or the best teachers gravitate to suburban districts that not only enroll well-prepared students from relatively stable homes but also pay well. As Obama promised in the campaign, his Obama administration should give school districts incentives to weed out teachers who are not getting the job done.

The biggest obstacles to higher achievement in D.C., Chancellor Rhee appears to believe, are the teachers’ union and its contract. She has taken aim at tenure and the salary schedule. Instead, she wants merit pay.

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What’s wrong with her proposed personnel policies ought to be clear in the Federal City, with its legions of civil servants. How many of them have no job security? How many are paid based on performance? Who else in the D.C. municipal workforce—police? firefighters?—gets paid based on merit? Does anyone remember that salary schedules were a civil service reform, a guard against arbitrary decisions about pay?

I agree that teachers’ unions share the blame for the state of urban education. But they are to be blamed for being too weak, not too strong. If the unions had negotiated better, teachers would be paid more and the country would have enough good teachers to put in the toughest classrooms.

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Kenneth J. Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is a freelance journalist based in Boston.

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