photo courtesy, Gretchen Krebs
Hannah Kunkel hugs her their-grade teacher Megan Chapman, whom Hannah's mom credits with helping her once-shy daughter to reach her potential in school.
Raising the status of teachers in society and encouraging people to go into teaching: I think that's fantastic. —Julie Randall

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

Though cities like Chicago and San Diego had previously proposed raising teacher salaries up to 16 percent, Iowa aims to increase the minimum starting salary by 25 percent, from $28,000 to $35,000. Additionally, the governor recommends adding at least $5,000 to salaries for teachers in high-need schools and locally defined hard-to-staff specialties like math and special education.

Currently, top-performing graduates can make twice as much money or more by choosing a career in law or engineering. Iowa's proposed increase would narrow that gap, but to truly compete for great candidates, Arne Duncan suggests raising starting salaries to at least $60,000.

Better teacher pay has broad bipartisan support. In a recent Texas survey, three out of four voters said they would support raising taxes in order to increase teacher salaries. Statewide tax increases are rare, but not unheard of. In November, citizens of California passed a state-level measure to raise income taxes on millionaires and sales taxes for all, with all of that money going toward public schools.

Voters in Oklahoma, Alabama, Ohio, Colorado and California passed laws last year to increase local taxes to fund schools and other public services. In Utah, most education funding comes from state property and income taxes, but 5 percent to 7 percent of funding for local districts comes from local sources.

Even when budgets are tight, improving teacher quality is possible. The consulting firm Public Impact says schools have options beyond raising revenue through taxes. After three years of research, it has come up with more than 20 suggestions on how to restructure U.S. schools for an "opportunity culture" of higher teacher pay, better career paths and solid mentoring for new teachers. Public Impact says these measures, all proven to improve student achievement, can be undertaken without raising overall costs.

Better mentoring

To make sure top grads get professional support and guidance to succeed in teaching, the Iowa task force recommends a one-year "residency." New teachers would have a lighter teaching schedule that affords them opportunities to "observe and learn from model teachers." Additionally, they would receive "intensive supervision (and) mentoring" from mentor and lead teachers.

From her experience as a teacher and a mom, Randall feels it's vital for teachers to have good examples to follow and mentors who help them establish effective teaching habits "from the get go." Her oldest son's teacher is new this year. "She was jumping in a couple weeks in," says Randall, "freshly graduated, and you can just feel that difference."

'Working so hard'

In California and San Diego, similar policy proposals for better mentoring and new career paths were not fully implemented because they met major resistance from teachers who had been excluded from the policy process. In Iowa, Branstad has been actively working with teachers, principals and education leaders — including the members of this task force — to develop policies educators can support.

According to The Des Moines Register, Mary Jane Cobb, executive director of the Iowa State Education Association, says many educators favor the policy ideas in general, but most are waiting to see the governor's final proposal before offering support.

"Raising the status of teachers in society and encouraging people to go into teaching: I think that's fantastic," says Randall, but she doesn't want the state to pay for reforms that don't work. After reading the task force's proposal, she was optimistic. "It looks like this team in Iowa is trying to do (what we) really know works," she says, "It'll be hard to know for sure until it's tried."

Kunkel also welcomes the positive attitude toward teachers. "The community's attitude is that the students' achievement is going down," she laments, "but the teachers are working so hard."