SPENDING A YEAR or even a semester in the classroom of a wonderful teacher can be a life-changing experience. Many an adult can still recall clearly the educator who opened the doors to learning, inspired a career or offered the boost that was needed to get through a rough passage in earlier years. The opposite, of course, is also true. A year in a classroom with a teacher who shouldn't be there can set a youngster back; a couple of those years in a row can cost students ground that may be very difficult ever to make up. And it's not always just a matter of luck which kind of teacher children run into.
The Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group that focuses on schools serving low-income and minority students, recently issued a report detailing what it calls "a pervasive, almost chilling difference" in the quality of teachers in those schools and in schools serving other young Americans. At the high school level, students in schools serving a high percentage of poor or minority students are much more likely to be taught by teachers not certified in their field. At all grade levels, students in high-poverty schools are more likely to be taught by less-experienced teachers. Although many dedicated and talented teachers work in these schools, the report found, there just aren't enough of them.
A variety of factors contributes to the disparity, including lack of money in some school districts to pay competitive salaries, seniority rules in some areas that allow the most experienced teachers to choose where they want to teach and abysmal working conditions in many urban and high-poverty schools. ("You might start by fixing the bathrooms," was one teacher's very basic suggestion for improving teaching conditions.)
Against this national backdrop, Fairfax County School Superintendent Daniel Domenech announced a small but promising experiment last week: Four of the county's most expert teachers, all nationally certified and each with at least 15 years experience, will voluntarily transfer to an elementary school that is struggling to improve student performance. They will receive $3,500 bonuses for making the switch, and will serve as mentors to other teachers as well as taking on their own classes. Mr. Domenech said he hopes the program, if successful, will spread to other schools as well. Maryland is offering a state-paid annual stipend of $2,000 starting this fall to teachers with advanced certification who will teach in schools that have been identified as needing special help or are in danger of state takeover. The state can't say yet how many teachers will participate.
Many jurisdictions, including Maryland, Virginia and the District, are taking broad steps to recruit more good teachers in general, improve their training and support them once they're in their jobs. These are important reforms because all students deserve the best possible teachers. But the job won't be complete until systems are drawing enough strong teachers to all the places they are needed, and making it worth their while to stay. ********************************************* -- Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA Fax: (618) 453-4244 Phone: (618) 453-4241 (office) (618) 457-8903 (home) E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org