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Want More Quality Teachers? Show Some Respect.

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A group of college students meeting recently to discuss leadership included an exchange student from Finland who, prompted by a few questions, shared her view of some of the differences between the education systems of her home country, which is producing top-level results, and the United States.

Her first point was a strong one: The teaching profession in Finland is considered prestigious. In America, it is disrespected. Friends in Finland, unable to qualify themselves, had asked how she managed to get accepted into a teacher preparation program there. The emphasis on excellence begins before a student starts studying to become a teacher.

This is a common thread among Finland and other top-performing countries such as Singapore and South Korea: They attract the best talent into a profession that is held in the highest regard among all professions. In the United States, where salaries are low and the profession is held in low esteem, top talent chooses to go in professional directions other than teaching. Or, if high performers do choose education as a career, they don't stay in classrooms very long. Attrition rates among teachers are skyrocketing. A recent study by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (NCTAF) found that America's teacher dropout problem is spiraling out of control, with attrition growing 50 percent over the past 15 years.

I worry when I hear teachers ask for help to stop the "teacher bashing" around our country. There are great, good, average and poor employees in every profession, and teaching is no exception. We must help those who are not performing at acceptable levels or remove them if they cannot be helped. Teacher unions and associations must be more active both in helping teachers improve and removing those who fail to do so. One model of such an approach has been successfully implemented in Montgomery County, Md.

Most of today's adults spent about 10,000 hours in K-12 classrooms when they were in school, and we all have our own ideas about what should be done. But we all also must recognize that today's classroom reality is far different from the days when we sat in our rows passively listening and compliantly answering questions. The profession of teaching is more important than ever - and the work is harder - in these times of global competition. What happens in today's classrooms is difficult to explain, but the demands it creates require the highest quality professionalism from committed teachers.

So, as the job gets more difficult, with starting pay remaining low and disrespect being high, how can we expect to attract top talent into the profession and keep them there? I believe significant improvement in salaries and working conditions can help begin a new cycle to put us on a path toward positive changes in and for the profession. (And, yes, salaries do matter!) For example, if the entry-level salary is $100,000 (this is possible within current budgets), what could we expect to happen? First, many top students who want to teach but now choose a different profession for financial reasons would bring their skills into the classroom for the benefit of our students. The appeal of higher salaries would allow universities to become more selective about the candidates they allow into their teacher preparation programs. As stronger talent entered the teaching workforce, student achievement would rise. The Center for Public Education reports, "There is research that has shown that students of teachers who have greater academic ability--be it measured through SAT or ACT scores, GPA, IQ, tests of verbal ability, or selectivity of the college attended--perform better." As achievement levels rise, we would have a stronger pool of future educators, thus continuing the upward spiral.

Increased investments in the profession would mean teachers would work year-round, spend more time together in professional learning communities, and provide more individual tutoring for students while daily work schedules would be revamped to better meet the needs of students.

But the higher compensation would bring a significant increase in the respect and prestige of the profession. And let's never forget that respect is key. U.S Education Secretary Arne Duncan is working on a much-needed project to elevate respect for the teaching profession. It is time for Americans to embrace a new approach to improving education - outspoken support of our teachers. I encourage you to start a campaign in your community, or to share information about one already underway, that overtly expresses strong support for our teachers and the critically important work they do.

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