Better teacher careers yield better student outcomes

Published: Sunday, Jan. 6 2013 9:10 p.m. MST

Hannah Kunkel stood at the front of the chapel one recent Sunday in Iowa, nervous but ready. Described by her parents as "precociously smart and also very shy," Hannah reached out privately, but used to be afraid to raise her hand in class. Now she raised her bow and began to play her violin in front of the entire congregation at her local church. Sitting in the pews alongside her family was a special guest who had been making an extra effort to help Hannah overcome her bashfulness: Megan Chapman, Hannah's third-grade teacher.

As parents know and studies show, a great teacher like Chapman can have a lifelong impact on a child's personal and academic development. Great teachers can raise a student's confidence, test scores, lifetime educational achievement and even their adult earning potential. As Stephanie Kunkle, Hannah's mother puts it, "a teacher like that is just worth their weight in gold."

In the decade since No Child Left Behind, much of the country's effort to improve education has focused on judging whether or not individual teachers are effective.

Now, some policymakers are shifting their focus toward improving teacher quality across the field by raising the status of the teaching profession to attract graduates from the top third of their college classes. It is a strategy that has worked well in several countries around the world, including top-rated Finland, Singapore and South Korea.

An experimental and innovative attempt to do the same here in the U.S. is under way in Iowa, where the state is considering a $177.5 million plan to improve classroom teacher quality, raise salaries and implement a cutting-edge mentoring program. The program, which the governor will propose to the state Legislature this month, could become a model for classrooms across the country — if lawmakers approve the sweeping changes.

"I think we have to acknowledge the fact that we have areas where we could make dramatic improvements, and it's time to do so," Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass recently told The Des Moines Register.

Fulfilling career paths

At the heart of the Iowa proposal is a $150 million plan to improve career options for excellent teachers. Currently, teachers face a limited career path where advancement usually means taking a job in administration, away from the classroom. Kunkel says Hannah is lucky Chapman has chosen to stay in the classroom. Her son's first-grade teacher, however, is earning her master's degree "and it's probably going to lead her to leave the classroom."

Julie Randall, a former Utah teacher and current Iowa mother of five, can relate. "Everybody wants to be promoted and have leadership opportunities," Randall said. Yet, "there's so much to say for experience" in the classroom.

The Iowa plan proposes improving careers and student outcomes by giving experienced teachers a reduced classroom schedule with extra responsibilities and pay. After two years of successful teaching, Iowa candidates could apply to become "model teachers" for new and struggling teachers to observe in action, "mentor teachers" who work with developing teachers to hone their skills, or "lead teachers" who use student data to make curricular improvements.

Public Impact, a national consulting organization specializing in education policy, terms this kind of restructuring multi-classroom leadership because it "extends the reach" of great teachers, letting them influence multiple classrooms with their expertise. Public Impact works with policymakers, public school districts and charter school management organizations to "make dramatic improvements for all students. It is currently partnering with public schools in Boston and Memphis, Tenn., to place groups of excellent teachers in struggling schools and equip them to mentor their developing peers. These lead teachers are paid more for their expertise and extra responsibilities.

Raising teacher pay

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