Those who can
How to turn teaching into a job that attracts high-flyers
IMAGINE a job where excellence does nothing to improve your pay or chances of promotion, and failure carries little risk of being sacked. Your pay is low for your qualifications—but at least the holidays are long, and the pension is gold-plated.
Teaching ought to be a profession for hard-working altruists who want to improve children's life prospects. But all too often school systems seem designed to attract mediocre timeservers. Many Mexican teachers have inherited their jobs; Brazilian ones earn less than other public servants, and retire much earlier. Each school-day a quarter of Indian teachers play truant. In New York it is so hard to sack teachers that even those accused of theft or assault may be parked away from pupils, doing “administrative tasks” on full pay, sometimes for years.
You can find outstanding individuals in the worst school systems. But, as lazy and incompetent teachers get away with slacking, the committed ones often lose motivation. In America and Britain surveys find plummeting morale. Jaded British teachers on online forums remind each other that it is just a few months till the long summer break—and just a few years till retirement. No wonder so many children struggle to learn: no school can be better than those who work in it.
Yet it is possible to persuade the hardworking and ambitious to teach. Finland pays teachers modestly but manages them well; ten graduates apply for each training place. South Korea recruits teachers from the top 5% of school-leavers and promises them fat pay cheques. In both countries teachers are revered—and results are among the world's best.
Even where the profession is in disrepute, high-flyers can be lured into the classroom. Teach for America, which sends star graduates from elite universities for two-year stints in rough schools, is being copied around the globe. Private employers snap up its alumni—but many stay in teaching. Teach First, Britain's version, has helped raise standards in London and is one of the country's most prestigious graduate employers. Such schemes are small, but show that when teaching is recast as tough and rewarding, the right sort clamour to join.
Spreading the revolution to the entire profession will mean dumping the perks cherished by slackers and setting terms that appeal to the hardworking. That may well mean higher pay—but also less generous pensions and holidays. Why not encourage teachers to use the long vacation for catch-up classes for pupils who have fallen behind? Stiffer entry requirements would raise the job's status and attract better applicants. Pay rises should reward excellence, not long service. Underperformers should be shown the door.
Standing in the way, almost everywhere, are the unions. Their willingness to back shirkers over strivers should not be underestimated: in Washington, DC, when the schools boss (a Teach for America alumna) offered teachers much higher pay in return for less job security, their union balked.
But against the unions is a growing coalition: the leaders in public administration and private enterprise who have been through Teach for America and its ilk. They know what it takes to succeed in difficult schools, and what it would take for success to become the norm. They know that what good teachers want most of all is good colleagues. As they become more numerous and influential, they need to argue for a new deal for teachers. The good ones deserve it—and pupils do, too.