November 24 — 3:22 pm, 2003

A balanced approach to attracting teachers

Should schools have the power to choose their teachers?

Education reforms have short shelf lives. Every few years, a reform surfaces that proponents claim is essential for all other school reforms to work.

Such reforms usually have three things in common. They are experimental, with no record of raising student achievement. They are more likely to expand management rights than address educational issues, and they rarely produce the desired results.

Giving principals the authority to hire teachers is being touted as the way to raise test scores and reduce teacher turnover, particularly in low-performing schools.

But in other urban districts using school-based teacher selection, there’s no evidence that it raises scores, reduces turnover, or attracts certified, experienced teachers to difficult-to-staff schools.

Research shows that teachers leave because of economic factors – low pay, lack of tuition reimbursement and high wage taxes – and poor working conditions – including large classes, lack of professional support, persistent discipline problems and shortages of resources. When surveyed, teachers never say they quit because the principal didn’t handpick them.

Attracting and keeping qualified teachers requires a variety of incentives, including:

  • Reduced class size. No single reform has proven more successful than lowering class size to 17 students in grades 1-3. In smaller classes, teachers are more successful managing student behavior and teaching subject matter, and successful teachers are more likely to stay.

  • Strengthen teacher and staff support. Teachers need relevant professional development, strong mentoring, and help with classroom management. Teacher preparatory programs must be strengthened, and new teachers entering education from other fields should "student-teach" in a certified teacher’s classroom.

  • Improve school leadership. Teachers stay in schools where they have productive,collaborative relationships with administrators. Principals must roll up their sleeves to help new teachers, not pounce on them at the first sign of trouble.

  • Enlist parents as partners. Parents are students’ first teachers, and student’ homes are their first classroom. Teachers work best in schools that have parental and community support.

  • Get tough on discipline. Turnover is highest in schools where discipline is a persistent problem. Schools must have an effective discipline policy, which is enforced fairly and consistently by teachers and administrators alike.

  • Make teaching a more attractive job. Significant bonuses for experienced teachers in struggling schools, housing incentives, loan forgiveness, tuition reimbursement, and other financial perks will help. While many of the rewards for teachers are intrinsic, money matters when the job is more difficult.

  • Make teachers’ jobs doable. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that teachers aren’t persuaded by financial incentives if working conditions are bad, resources are scarce, and leadership is poor. Teachers can’t teach children to write without books, pencils, and paper.

Since 2000, Philadelphia schools have been able to participate in school-based selection of teachers. Faculties at 31 schools have opted to do so. At these schools, school personnel committees made up of teachers, administrators, parents, and students filled only two-thirds of the teacher vacancies through school-based interviews.

School-based hiring can empower teachers to become more involved in determining and carrying out a school’s educational program if there is trust and a shared educational philosophy between the principal and faculty.

But when principals pressure and intimidate faculty members into opting into the program, and then override the personnel committee’s decisions or hire friends or unqualified candidates, teachers quickly become demoralized and leave.

Qualified teachers are more likely to transfer into a school if it has strong leadership and good working conditions, and if it offers economic incentives. Forcing experienced teachers into hard-to-staff schools could reduce the quality of education in schools that are meeting their goals and drive qualified teachers out of the District.

Principals wanting to build a cohesive school team can provide prospective teachers with job descriptions and information about the school’s educational program, and they can recruit prospective teachers during transfer sessions.

In the final analysis, hiring the best certified teacher applicants available and creating a system of supports and incentives to keep them is the best strategy for getting a qualified teacher in every classroom.

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