Puttin' Out the Bone

It's Time to Hire Super Teachers

Mar 28, 2002 at 2:06 pm

Call them super teachers. Pay them bucks so big Procter and Gamble would scold a company human resources officer for not winning the bidding war.

Convince them that becoming and staying a super teacher would not only pay them the highest salary of anyone with a four-year degree, but they'd be in one of the most prestigious careers in town.

Then demand that they bring the test scores of their inner city students to the level of those in the suburbs.

Clearly, closing the achievement gap between urban and suburban kids is one of America's hardest challenges. If it weren't, presidential campaigns wouldn't make television commercials about it. Charter and voucher proponents would shut up. Talk show callers would turn to other topics. And corporate leaders would send their philanthropic words and dollars elsewhere.

The fact is the achievement gap is tantamount to cancer.

Both flat-out demand cures.

But we've missed the simple point. The only silver bullet is to put a 90th percentile or higher teacher in front of every inner city class in Cincinnati. It's not the textbooks, stupid, that keep poor kids scoring far below wealthier kids.

Though no kid should study among plaster droppings, it's not the facilities. It's not the allocation of time. It's not the lack of pride in the basketball team. It's not the principal. It's not the food in the lunchroom. It's not the discipline code. It's not uniforms.

It's the teacher. No, it's the teachers, one by one in classrooms up and down hallways throughout every American inner city.

Look. You get what you pay for. The medical profession knows that. You, the patient, know that. If you're going for relief from an illness — better yet, if you're going for a cure of something that might kill you — you don't go to someone who starts off at $30,000 a year. You'd almost want to go to someone who commands a huge salary, because it says he or she is among the best society has.

Yet in education, we demand solutions from people who are paid very little. So we adopt a "cracking" strategy. Keep the same workforce of teachers, but crack the whip on them. Demand that the same people simply work harder to close the achievement gap, never wondering if elite teachers could move the achievement needle when others have not been able to.

Think back to your school years. There's probably a teacher or two who jumps out as having been special. You never disrupted their classes, never cut. You learned from them. You enjoyed them. You talked to them during extracurricular activities. Now you go back and visit them. You'll remember them even after they die.

They were also the ones that could have made it in business or other professions. But they forwent big money for altruistic satisfaction. They were also damn few in number. Sad that we all came to believe that we were only entitled to a few of them in an educational lifetime.

What crap. We were all deserving of them all the time, and poor children can't succeed without them. It's just that society and its citizen school boards never understood pedagogy. Add to that the power of the corporate oligarchy and its priority to give scarce dollars to places like Saks Fifth Avenue and sports facilities, and you've got a full-blown crisis.

Here's the plan to close the achievement gap between inner city and suburban kids. Start with understanding the problem. Kids in the suburbs get higher standardized test scores because, in most cases, there's reading in homes, quiet around the homework table at night, demands that kids get to school on time and stay there all day and behave, good diets, parental support of the school and an expectation that elementary and high school will lead to college.

On the other hand, impoverished kids, Caucasian and African American, struggle with noise, dysfunction, roaches, lead paint, substance abuse, absentee parents, even fear of being shot on the way to school. Forces like those alone can make performance on the level of a kid whose childhood is smooth sailing very unlikely.

So the challenge that my super teachers face are as difficult as finding a new medical treatment, closing a huge development deal, writing a corporate computer plan or composing a symphony.

But are the people whom companies and other professions pay dearly to solve their problems the same ones who could take on the above task and do what the existing cadre of educators have not been able to do? Hell, yes.

Successful teaching is successful communicating and managing. Procter and Gamble seeks men and women who are bright, creative, assertive, pleasant and willing to work a ton of hours. They're the ones who can figure out the solution to a problem while working effectively in a team.

But then they pay them accordingly. So do other top-notch employers. National and local data show top college graduates can get as much as $55,000 for their first job out of school, a full $25,000 more than a starting teacher. Over a career, they might top out at $300,000 to $400,000, while a teacher might end up at $60,000 or so after 30 years.

The best news is that the same qualities that make people dear in one field would often make a great teacher. Give me your community's best sales people or entertainers or even branch managers, make sure they have souls, care about and connect with kids, see diversity as America's fabric, appreciate what a tall climb it is from poverty and racism and that they love the idea of taking on one of this country's greatest challenges; and I'll show you the only group who can close the gap.

You simply replace saving a low-producing soap with saving an entire generation.

So how do you pay for this? How could society muster the resources to staff its most difficult schools with such expensive teachers? Look what it's costing by not doing it.