The greening of the American teacher

Scarcity of experienced educators is not a chance development, and it is ruining US schools

June 9, 2014 12:15AM ET
D. Hurst / Alamy

One year of teaching experience is the new normal in America’s classrooms. Nationwide, schools are embracing tenderfoot teachers instead of skilled, veteran educators — what the industry calls master teachers, an informal moniker that denotes expertise in content creation, differentiated instruction and student outcomes in the face of education reform.

According to multiple peer-reviewed studies, the professional longevity of a master teacher — someone who has eight or more consecutive years in the classroom — leads to increased student engagement and academic success. These hallmarks of an exceptional education have become less than visible in the United States’ school system, which has not been deemed exceptional or even satisfactory for quite some time, according to international rankings by the Programme for International Student Assessment. Mediocrity in American education will persist as long as we have a disproportionate number of green teachers. What’s worse is that this mediocrity is easily avoidable and fully intentional.

Several reasons exist for this neophytism, but first among them is the decline of tenure. Washington, D.C., North Carolina, Idaho, South Dakota and Louisiana recently eliminated it. Students Matter, an educational advocacy group funded by tech titan David W. Welch, is suing the state of California to overturn teacher tenure, and his group plans to bring similar suits in other states. Even in states where tenure remains intact, it is no longer a guarantee. Under New York City’s latest teacher evaluation system, almost half of teachers eligible for tenure in 2013 were denied.

Charter schools, which serve 4.2 percent of all public school students, rarely offer tenure. Nor do the nation’s 10 percent of independent or parochial schools, because tenure limits the control that administrators maintain over operating budgets and hiring decisions. Educators in these untenured schools have a demonstrably higher rate of attrition than in district schools, and lack of job security (PDF) is among the top reasons cited when a teacher leaves. Tenure implies a respect for longevity. Without it, it’s too easy for districts to jettison teachers when their salaries approach living wages or when they espouse academic philosophies at odds with administrative fiats.

The current skewing of the teacher force toward a homogenized team of amateurs undermines the undisputed benefits of skill and maturity.

As public charter schools grow at a rapid pace — in just over a decade, enrolled students have increased from 300,000 to 2.1 million — they contribute to a cultural shift that views teaching as a temporary commitment. Teach for America (TFA), which places one-third of its recruits in charter schools, has in many ways made it trendy to view teaching as a brief, altruistic gesture rather than a lifelong profession. Motoko Rich, reporting for The New York Times last year, wrote that “charter networks are developing what amounts to a youth cult in which teaching for two to five years is seen as acceptable and, at times, even desirable.” Rich found that KIPP and Success Academy, two of the largest charter networks, retain teachers for an average of only four years.

Intentional greening is also an attractive option for public school districts because fledgling teachers require smaller operating budgets. TFA recruits, therefore, sometimes replace veteran teachers whose jobs have been cut in budget shortages. In a report updated in April, the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (PDF) found that the typical classroom experience for teachers shrank from 15 years in 1987 to just one year in 2008; the attrition rate for first-year professionals rose by 34 percent since the late 1980s.

This teaching model is both unsustainable and unscalable, because, as education expert Mike Rose expertly argued last year in The Washington Post, great teaching relies on a commitment to community. Amid a rolling cohort of novice instructors, experienced practitioners who might sustain the best pedagogy and mentor trainees are scarce. Similarly, fewer teachers stay long enough to establish roots in the neighborhood.

What can be done to rescue the dwindling ranks of experienced educators? A 2010 study by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. reports that in order to attract and retain high-performing teachers, incentives for longevity are essential. After conducting a global comparison of high-achieving schools, McKinsey found that schools in Finland and Singapore do not adhere to the facile perception that a teacher’s effectiveness plateaus after three years; those countries believe teachers attain true expertise after 15 to 20 years of experience.

In the United States, these kinds of incentives can take myriad forms, from tenure to fostering collegiality in the workplace to expanding teacher autonomy in the classroom.

Educators must have reasons to be excited about developing their teaching careers. An ideal faculty would feature a diversity of experience levels, from energetic newcomers to established virtuosos. The current skewing of the teacher force toward a homogenized team of amateurs, however, undermines the undisputed benefits of skill and maturity. All our favorite childhood master teachers would undoubtedly agree.

This story has been updated to correct the organization that is suing the state of California. It is Students Matter, not Students First. 

Mercer Hall is a teacher and co-founder of the American Society for Innovation Design in Education. He is a co-editor of the ASIDE blog, and his work is regularly featured in EdSurge, Edutopia, EdTech magazine and other forums.

Gina Sipley is a lifelong teacher who has been nationally recognized as a teacher of the future for her commitments to technology, sustainability and social justice. She writes about educational technology for EdSurge and Mic

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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