Sunday, October 23, 2011

A New Contract for Teachers

Bill and Melinda Gates yesterday had one of their editorials published in the Wall Street Journal. In it they call for a personnel system for teachers that would resemble those found in private industry, including that which was implemented at Microsoft. While raising the professional status of teachers is clearly an advisable goal, whether pursuing the business analogy in public education will prove productive can certainly be called into question. One reason is that private corporations do not have to evince the social consciences that public institutions are called on to have; they can cast off outdated equipment without complaint from many aside from environmentalists, and they cast off unsatisfactory employees with similar disregard, although the backlash against practices that regard human beings as disposable is clearly growing.

But wise educators of all persuasions know that any improvement in teachers' status is likely to require a new contract for teachers. What should the main features of such contracts be?

One main feature would surely be to define professional qualifications for the teachers. In this regard, recent moves to promote alternative certification, including especially those that only include a few weeks of summer training such as that offered by Teach For America (TFA), are clearly moves in the wrong direction. While I recruited and trained TFA teachers at Locke High School, and became and remain friends with several of them and admire them, that was in keeping with the exigencies originally envisioned for the programme, which was a stopgap for urban and rural schools desperate to recruit full-time teachers, even  from TFA, in preference to the succession of even shorter term substitutes then inhabiting many of our neediest classrooms. In short, it was a desperation move, and the graduates from such pitifully inadequate programmes should never replace fully licenced teachers, particularly under circumstances where thousands of the latter have been laid off due to reduced government resources.

A second main feature I advocate is pay for performance, rather than just for credentials plus seniority. While all teachers employed ought to be licenced professionals, it does not follow that they are all equally effective. Those that do the best job ought, in general, to be the best paid. While there are legitimate debates ongoing about how to decide who is doing the best job, the Gateses, who I should add do not call in their Journal editorial for reduced licencing standards, are correct in their desire to link better pay with better performance.

There are many more features to an ideal teachers' contract like that we have proposed at One World Secondary School, but let us hope that at least these, regarding the qualifications, performance, and compensation to be expected for professional teachers, will be remembered by those making tough decisions in the coming months.

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