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Competing to Win in the War for Teacher Talent

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Following is a post from Guest Blogger Ellen Behrstock-Sherratt, a senior researcher at the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders at the American Institute for Research and coauthor of "Everyone at the Table: Engaging Teachers in Evaluation Reform."

The U.S. may have come in 2nd place with 28 medals in the Sochi Winter Olympics, but in educational achievement we rank 24th place in reading, 28th in science, and 36th in mathematics. Improving our game will require that not just some and not just most, but all students have effective teachers. Making that happen while Baby Boomer educators are retiring in droves will require that the education field compete even harder for the next generation of talent.

Aggressively recruiting a talent pool is common in other industries. Fifteen years ago, the global strategy consulting firm McKinsey & Company coined the term "war for talent," setting off a corporate competition to attract the best and brightest- - from college graduates to the C-suite. The rationale was that staff effectiveness defined a company's and even industry's performance.

To be sure, many school districts perform off the charts in this competition for talent. Many happy suburbs are wooing truly phenomenal teachers to their classrooms with good salaries, state-of-the-art facilities, and the chance to work with motivated well-supported students and collegial colleagues. And many urban and rural schools are attracting talent without all the perks. Even so, as a field, education seems barely in the race for best strategic HR practices. A cross-industry study by IBM found that HR professionals in education used the "least enlightened" talent-management practices.

The solution? High-level state policy leaders, informed by teachers themselves, need to strengthen the teacher pipeline by identifying the field's plusses and minuses, especially in high-need schools, and advertising the plusses to talented young people while addressing the minuses full force. Teaching must both be and be perceived to be an exciting career for college students with many other options - including in law, business, and other high-paying fields that are aggressively recruiting the next generation of talent.

To understand this next generation's needs and wants, and the implications of these for the teaching profession, McKinsey & Company conducted market research on high-performing college students' thoughts on the attractiveness of teaching as a profession. Revisiting the war on talent, "Closing the Talent Gap" identifies the major negatives that keep college students in the top third of their class from considering teaching andmodels what it would take to change top college students' minds under assumptions ranging from:

  • significantly higher compensation
  • a marketing campaign
  • paid professional development
  • excellent school leadership
  • more attractive working environments.

If we want two-thirds of teachers in our high-need schools to come from the top-third of their college class, McKinsey & Company determined, large school districts would need to spend $95-$285 million per year, and an average sized state would need to invest roughly $630 million per year (roughly 5 percent of current K-12 spending).

Few states can afford this price-tag. But they can't afford to ignore their achievement gaps either, so here are three steps for state leaders, teacher leaders and all stakeholders, to take to build their teacher pipelines:

First, correct perception gaps. Separate perception gaps from real problems. Could it be the case that teachers are better paid than college students think or that earnings opportunities in other fields are lower than they think? Perhaps there are teacher- training scholarships that college students don't know about?

Second, grab the low-hanging fruit. Look first for high-impact no-cost opportunities--say, recognizing any of the many accomplishments teachers achieve in classrooms each day and showing appreciation for the value and sophistication of teachers' work.

Third, spark open dialogue about the more challenging recruitment, retention and teacher-support issues. Engage stakeholders in conversations on how to increase or reallocate resources so there is a robust pipeline of teachers for all students. For some ideas to spark productive dialogue:

The Olympics give us an inspiring occasion to re-think what's possible. The U.S. Olympic Committee has identified the characteristics of successful Olympic coaches: committing to individual integrity, values, and personal growth; being profound thinkers and well-educated (formally and informally); sticking with athletes for the long-run and valuing those relationships; experimenting with new ideas; understanding human nature; loving their work; and being honest and ethically strong. Our teachers must possess many of these same traits, and as long as students from disadvantaged backgrounds continue to fail and to drop out, more must be done to develop, attract, retain and support the best possible talent to these classrooms.

Competing in the war for talent to regain our status as a world leader in education may be daunting. But as 22-time Olympic champion Michael Phelps puts it, "Nothing is impossible. With so many people saying it couldn't be done, all it takes is an imagination."

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