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Sub-a-Dub-Dub


Fabulous column by Matthew DiCarlo, packed with juicy links, over at the Answer Sheet--about a subject that ought be drop-dead obvious: Teachers improve with experience.

Of course, teachers get better over time, if they're paying attention and care at all about developing a teaching practice. And if they don't--well, it's those practitioners that Erik Hanushek ought to be targeting with his edu-economic efficiency blowgun. Di Carlo notes that novice teachers surrounded by talented colleagues get better faster (no duh), and rank beginners in dysfunctional schools have the hardest time honing their craft.

Last spring, Michigan offered veteran teachers a retirement sweetener, hoping to capitalize on all the newly minted--read: cheap--teachers who can't find work in their home state. A win-win, the legislature thought: expensive geezer-teachers fade into the sunset and energetic newbies light up the classroom while simultaneously and significantly reducing the payroll. And 17,000 tired teachers took the bait, relinquishing their ability to take subsequent jobs in public education and putting their considerable expertise permanently out to pasture.

What happened next was predictable: a domino cascade of young-but-experienced teachers moving from less-desirable schools to fill openings in the premier districts. Utica, one of the largest districts in the state, hired 49 new teachers. All but three had a few years' experience in the classroom. What a bonanza for Utica--less expensive teachers who have learned their craft somewhere else. And where did all the first-year teachers get jobs? One guess.

There's been a little flurry of commentary lately on taking aim at teachers who hold master's degrees, wresting control of how teachers are paid from the negotiating process and "increasing competition through innovation and charters." Arne Duncan thinks we need a "national teacher campaign"--whatever that looks like--to fix the problem of old, saggy teachers slogging along and sucking up public dollars with their overinflated salaries and benefit packages.

There's rhetoric ("this is about taking the profession more seriously," says Tom Friedman) and then there's money. And this is mostly about money. If you take this "out with the old/in with the new" tactic to its ultimate end, you find yourself in Detroit, where there are 128 open jobs for certified teachers currently being filled by substitutes.

There is no shortage of qualified, unemployed teachers in southeastern Michigan. And it's November. This problem should have been solved 10 weeks ago. The Detroit Federation of Teachers (noting that subs get paid about half of what a beginning teacher makes) has urged the district to hire full-time teachers, pronto--and suggested that subs teach only to plans provided by administrators, rather than assuming the responsibilities of a teacher of record: grading, lesson planning and parent-teacher conferences.

This is what happens when the goal is economizing, cutting corners rather than investment in quality. Since we know, unequivocally, that teachers don't hit their stride until year four or so--why would any school leader choose underpaid newbies over experience? And the most important question: Who loses when we fill our classrooms with teachers who have not mastered their craft?

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