Build the Capacity of Teachers and Their Schools: Improve the Quality of Teachers and Teaching by Investing in Individual Teachers and Assessing Their Effectiveness While Also Improving the Schools Where They Work

By Johnson, Susan Moore | Phi Delta Kappan, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Build the Capacity of Teachers and Their Schools: Improve the Quality of Teachers and Teaching by Investing in Individual Teachers and Assessing Their Effectiveness While Also Improving the Schools Where They Work


Johnson, Susan Moore, Phi Delta Kappan


Teachers are the most important school-level factor in students' learning. On that, reformers agree. However, consensus stops there as advocates for change promote divergent strategies for improvement. One approach, focusing on individual teachers, calls for closely monitoring their performance and using evidence about their effectiveness to inform all staffing decisions. Salary bonuses would also be used to motivate and reward individuals, thus increasing the effort and success of all teachers. A different approach, designed to improve the organization rather than the individual, would change how teachers' roles are defined and school resources are used, for example, by introducing instructional coaching or scheduling time for teachers to meet regularly with grade-level or subject teams.

Recent state and federal policies generally focus on the individual teacher rather than the school organization. These reforms seem to assume that a teacher can do it all, that an individual who succeeds in one school can succeed in any school and, conversely, that a teacher who fails in one classroom will fail in all others. However, there is no evidence that changing the people who work in a school without changing the context in which they work will be effective. But reformers need not decide between the two approaches in a forced either-or choice. A more balanced strategy for improving the quality of teachers and teaching would invest in individual teachers and assess their effectiveness while also improving the schools where they work.

The teachers

Any effort to improve teaching should begin with an understanding of today's teachers. At the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, we have been studying the large cohort of new teachers--over two million--who began entering the classroom in the late 1990s to replace an enormous cohort of retiring teachers hired in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Those veteran teachers began their careers at a time when many other professional fields--law, business, medicine--were closed, or at least unwelcoming, to women and to men of color. As a result, many chose teaching by default. This created the "hidden Subsidy" of public education: a rich source of well-educated individuals who had few professional options and, therefore, taught at pay levels well below those of professionals in other fields. This large cohort of teachers remained in the classroom for their entire career--the first, and possibly the last, to do so.

Because veteran teachers made a lifetime career in the classroom, most school officials expected their successors to do the same. Once recruited and hired, new teachers would remain in teaching, whatever the conditions of their work. Therefore, school officials were surprised by high attrition rates among new teachers that appeared around 2000. Compared with their veteran colleagues, these new teachers had far more employment opportunities. In fact, the very fields that were closed to prospective teachers in the late 1960s were recruiting women and men of color by 2000. As they considered whether to enter and remain in teaching, prospective teachers compared a career in the classroom with other options, many offering higher pay, more interaction with colleagues, and opportunities for rapid career advancement. School officials suddenly discovered that they had to compete for talent and could no longer count on new teachers to remain in their job for 30 yesr.

Schools where teachers work

The clearest and most important finding from our four-year study of 50 new teachers was that their satisfaction and sense of success depended on the school where they worked (Johnson & Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, 2004). Some schools were well-organized, purposeful, and supportive places for teaching and learning. Teachers in such schools described how they had been hired in a thorough and information-rich process. Their initial assignments matched their subject knowledge and preparation. …

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