Last week I suggested that teacher tenure (in Maine, this is called a “continuing contract”) was detrimental to developing strong teachers. Moreover, I believe the abolition of tenure is an important piece in raising the status of teachers.

Raising the status of teachers has been much in the news over the past two weeks as it emerged as the principal recommendation of a recent Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation report on comparative education systems.

The study drew on the results of the testing of 15-year-olds in more than 50 countries in math, reading, and science. The top-scoring countries were Finland, Singapore, and South Korea. U.S. students were well down the list, 19th in science and 27th in math.

The report suggested that the top-performing countries recruited only high-performing college students to their teaching ranks, supported their development, and tended to pay them at levels closer to that of professions such as law or medicine. In all of these countries, teachers had considerably higher status than in the United States.

This research is similar to that done by the global consultancy, McKinsey, two years ago. McKinsey noted that, in contrast to the top-performing countries, the United States recruited almost 50 percent of its teachers from the bottom third of college graduates as defined by SAT scores.

I fully support the importance of raising the status of the teaching profession in the United States. Removing tenure would be a step in this direction, as it would heighten professionalism and, as I pointed out last week, provide better incentives for well-designed professional development programs.

Of course, the most significant initiative the United States could take to improve teacher status and provide a basis for recruiting more qualified college graduates is to increase teacher pay.

According to McKinsey, starting teacher pay, which now averages $39,000 nationally, would need to rise to $65,000 to attract college graduates from the top third of their class. This may seem like a lot, yet this is comparable to pay levels in the high-performing countries — all of which spend less per student on education than we do here in the United States.

In fact, in the comparison group of 50 countries, only tiny Luxembourg spends more per student on education than the United States. The example of Maine makes this point starkly.

While Maine is among the top 15 states in spending per student, Maine is only 44th in average teacher pay. Clearly we in Maine and in the United States have a high-priced model with resources not going to where they will do the most good — to the best teachers.

A significant part of this difference comes from having smaller class sizes. However, there are several other factors that contribute, including the comparatively high amounts the United States spends on special education, teacher aides and non-teaching staff.

Realistically, a significant increase in teachers’ salaries could only come as part of a larger package of reforms. Giving superintendents and principals more flexibility in hiring and retaining the best teachers would be an essential piece of the package. That would imply a new approach to tenure based on a better-developed teacher evaluation approach.

Increasing teacher salaries would also likely mean larger class sizes and a more cost-effective approach to support staff and related costs.

Just how this would be done remains a work in progress. However, what is clear is that teachers unions must turn over a new leaf in working with school districts to bring about this new model for teaching.

Should the unions be up to this challenge, the rewards to the profession are substantial. Raising teachers’ salaries, when combined with a more flexible approach to hiring, development, retention and classroom practice, will go a long way toward raising the stature of the profession.

This can be done. It will take time and lots of leadership. The approach that Joel Klein, recently retired schools chancellor in New York City, has taken there provides useful lessons in bringing these principles into practice.

In Maine this would require a statewide approach, which would be a departure from current practice in a mind-boggling number of ways. Nonetheless, the right first step is a select commission to work out a new structure to reallocate the way Maine currently deploys its K-12 resources.

Does this sound ambitious? You bet. And we had better start soon because the upside of paying teachers like professionals and holding them accountable to a higher standard is truly significant.

Our students will thank us.

Ron Bancroft is an independent strategy consultant based in Portland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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