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What If Teachers Could Be Promoted?

Note: This week Matthew Kraft, assistant professor of education at Brown University, joins us as guest-blogger. You can follow him on Twitter at @MatthewAKraft.

I'm thrilled to take a break from my research this week to reflect on what we might do differently to substantially enhance the quality of teaching and learning in K-12 public schools.  In this series of "What if . . ." blog posts, I share my thoughts on some of the big questions I hope we all consider asking. 


Like many young teachers in urban public schools, my career was short. I got my start as a long-term sub for an 8th grade English teacher in Oakland USD who went on maternity leave. That fall, I was hired to teach 9th grade humanities at Berkeley High School. Three years later, I left the classroom. It turns out that I am in the majority - a new study finds that 55 percent of novice teachers in urban districts leave after just five years.

When I'm asked why I left teaching, a variety of factors come to mind.  Despite being a member of one of the largest occupational groups in this country, I felt isolated as a professional. I taught in a portable classroom that was a block from campus and was frustrated by the lack of feedback I received about my practice. I also couldn't see myself staying in a job where my title would be exactly the same from my first day until my last; where my salary was predictable and unrelated to my performance. Higher pay is always attractive, but it wasn't merit pay I was missing — I certainly didn't deserve a bonus. I wanted to be challenged by my work, to rise to meet these challenges with support and dedication, and to be recognized, eventually, for my accomplishments by my peers. Teaching certainly provided more than enough stimulating challenges. As I gained experience, I became better at meeting the needs of my students, but I couldn't see where down the road my continued efforts to improve would be recognized or rewarded. I wanted to be able to earn a promotion.

Opportunities for recognition alone are even few and far between in teaching.  Statistically speaking, teachers are roughly five times more likely to be struck by lightning during their lifetimes than they are to be recognized as a State Teacher of the Year in a given year. Earning tenure certainly did not feel like a recognition of my efforts. It was hard to be proud about something that I earned by default and that was not reflected in my salary or title. I've met people who proudly describe their jobs as Chief Resident, Senior Analyst, and Executive Chef, but I never once had someone tell me they are a tenured teacher. 

Am I an outlier or representative of a common trend? Detailed data on this topic is difficult to find. We do know that when former teachers are asked to compare their current jobs with being a teacher, 49% report that "opportunities for professional advancement or promotion" are better in their new jobs compared to just 18% who say there were more opportunities as a teacher. Similarly, 52% of these leavers rated the professional prestige of their new jobs as higher while only 8% found teaching to be more prestigious. 

What we really want to know are the reasons that high-performing teachers leave the profession. TNTP's The Irreplaceables provides at least a start to answering this important question. Buried in footnote 59, they report evidence from teacher survey data across several urban districts that the lack of career advancement opportunities played a larger role in high-performing teachers' decisions to leave than low-performing teachers. For example, in one district, 31% of high performing teachers ranked "opportunities for career advancement" among the top three reasons they plan to leave their school, while only 13% of low-performing teachers did so. This suggest that schools are losing some of their best teachers because there are few opportunities for promotion that don't involve leaving the classroom.

In recent years, scholars and education reformers such as Celine Coggins, Jal Mehta and our own Rick Hess have written compelling arguments in favor of teacher career ladders. Susan Moore Johnson and John Papay have proposed the "Tiered Pay-and-Career Structure," a comprehensive and pragmatic model for how districts could implement a career ladder system. Career ladder systems have also been firmly endorsed by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which together represent over 4 million educators.

Despite the support for these systems, efforts to advance career ladder systems at the statehouse have largely faltered. A comprehensive review by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and the Center for Educator Effectiveness reads like an obituary of repealed and defunded programs. Less ambitious multi-tiered licensure systems have had more success but are often little more than bonus pay for National Board-certified teachers.  

Given the financial and political challenges at the state level, district level-efforts such as in Baltimore, Denver and Washington D.C. might present the best opportunities for reform. Past efforts also suggest that districts would be wise to redesign the step-and-ladder compensation system in a way that is financially sustainable rather than relying on external funding. Substantially raising the bar for earning tenure could create one clear step on the ladder within existing systems.  Evidence from New York City suggests that when districts do raise the bar for tenure, teachers respond. Districts might also consolidate the myriad teacher leadership roles under a third step on the career ladder. 

Amazing teachers need to be recognized and rewarded for their work in meaningful ways. Small add-ons to the current system such as stipends for additional leadership roles and modest pay-for-performance bonuses based on what some teachers perceive as arbitrary measures will not accomplish this. Even more than recognition and compensation, stand-out teachers' talents need to be enlisted in helping others to rise to their levels.

A profession that relies on the internal motivation of its workers and the occasional friendly message from a former student on Facebook will not attract or retain the best teachers of this generation. Who knows, if a career ladder system existed in my district, I might have dedicated myself to becoming a Master Teacher rather than a Full Professor. 

--Matthew Kraft

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