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How to Improve the Teacher Workforce

I have great respect for the Brookings Institution.  But I'm disappointed about its memo to President-elect Trump that contains recommendations about how to "recruit, prepare, improve, and retain excellent teachers and distribute these excellent teachers equitably across schools and communities" ("Improving the teacher workforce," Brookings Institution, Dec. 9, 2016). 

I say that because the six steps the memo urges the federal government to take are hardly original.  They rely largely on financial incentives.  Although I agree that these are important, they will do little to change the overall gloomy picture.  That's because I don't believe that teachers are motivated by the same set of incentives that apply to other workers. 

Consider one of the greatest challenges today: Recruiting and retaining teachers in high-poverty schools.  Combat pay has done little, if anything, to solve the problem.  Critics will no doubt assert that far more money must be offered to entice the best teachers to these schools.  Offers of $3,000, for example, are simply not enough.  But even if that amount were tripled, I question its ability to do the job.

Here's why: Teachers want to be able to teach.  It's not that students from low-income familes lack the desire to learn.  On the contrary, they often are the hungriest to consume knowledge.  But the huge deficits they bring to class through no fault of their own force teachers to attend to out-of-school factors before they can focus on their lesson plans.  Teachers don't want to have to practice triage.  That's not what they signed up for. 

I wish the Brookings memo written by Pamela Grossman of the University of Pennsylvania and Susanna Loeb of Stanford University had addressed this issue.  I maintain that it is the No. 1 reason why it is so difficult distributing the best teachers equitably in schools across the nation.

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