(Brain) power shortage

Liam Julian

The twenty-third permutation of the MetLife teacher survey series, which annually compiles data on teacher attitudes across a range of topics, recently emerged and was mostly ignored.

The dearth of coverage is surprising because the survey counter-intuitively shows (claims of test-driven drudgery notwithstanding) that public school teachers are more satisfied with their jobs today than at any point in the past twenty years. But despite that heartening statistic, lots of educators are less than thrilled with their jobs. Twenty-seven percent of those surveyed plan to leave the field within five years.

That's a lot of turnover. Or maybe it's quite normal. Certainly the modern job market is not the one of fifty, twenty, or even ten years ago. Today's professional is mobile, always on the lookout for better opportunities, and is more willing to jump ship the moment a more-promising position becomes available. Today's college graduates typically explore multiple career paths before--maybe--picking one.

A recent survey from the American Business Collaboration (ABC) found that 41 percent of workers in mid-size to large corporations would seriously consider leaving their current job for another that offered better opportunities for advancement, while only 20 percent would do so for better job security. Peace of mind is less motivating, it appears, than climbing the corporate ladder. And while the ABC survey looked only at corporate workers, it's likely that many of the teachers who plan to exit the classroom within five years are also adapting to the job market's mutability and expanding possibilities. 

Such losses might not be a bad thing. Some analysts contend that schools could actually manage with a lot fewer teachers than they currently have. When viewed from that angle, and with the knowledge that large-scale employers of every sort face increasing job turnover, the percentage of teachers who may jump ship doesn't look so alarming.

But there is cause for worry. The teachers predisposed to leave are also apt to have the greatest potential (see here). And while programs such as Teach for America (TFA), which annually brings thousands of graduates from the nation's top colleges into underperforming schools, offer good models of how to guide talent toward the K-12 classroom, their alumni, too, are likely to move on to other pursuits.

To be sure, troubled schools don't need Ivy Leaguers to teach their students. Any enterprise that employs three million people must be organized in such a way that ordinary mortals can succeed at it. A well-run education system, complete with rigorous standards and accountability and implemented by average teachers committed to its goals, will likely effect more learning than a cadre of the brightest minds banging their heads against the wall in a hostile school environment.

But uncommonly able people are valuable to large enterprises, too. The Economist recently focused a special section on "The battle for brainpower," the crux of which is that talent (young, driven, skilled, educated, and innovative workers) is far and away the primary competitive tool driving corporate and national success. The best companies, especially in today's economy, know that stagnation is a death sentence, and they also know that the innovation required to remain competitive is driven by the best minds (often the youngest, best minds). School systems, however, have not been very good at attracting and keeping such individuals.

Charter schools are beginning to change that. Smart and talented young folks such as Mike Feinberg and David Levin of KIPP, Eric Adler and Rajiv Vinnakota of SEED, and Dacia Toll of Amistad, are living proof of what talent, energy, and drive can do in public education. But for the sprawling public school system to undergo the type of reform it truly needs, district schools must also attract such talent.

What does that require? Talented individuals are drawn to places where their skills and abilities won't be wasted. They typically want to work in dynamic environments without excessive bureaucracy; they want to be held accountable for their actions and given the freedom to meet expectations in their own ways; they want mentors and leaders whom they respect (leaders who set goals and demand that their workers meet them); they want to be decently compensated; and they want to feel that they have the opportunity to excel in their chosen field. More than a few of them also hope to improve their society if not the world.

Lots of school systems fail to create that sort of environment. Of the 27 percent of MetLife survey respondents planning to leave teaching, almost half were dissatisfied with the professional prestige of teaching, 40 percent were dissatisfied with the salary and benefits, and 29 percent said their principal never asked for their suggestions. (Similar complaints are voiced by many teachers who are not planning to leave.)

Yes, the salary system needs reforming--physical education teachers are still paid the same as chemistry teachers in most places. But school leaders (especially principals with the ability to select and deploy their own staffs) can focus on other, perhaps less controversial and politically charged aspects of the teaching environment.  

Just as talent clusters geographically, it also tends to cluster institutionally. Talent feeds off itself; great ideas are created when smart and ambitious people get together and start working. There's no reason why such communities cannot flourish in K-12 schools. The Corporate Executive Board believes that, in order to attract talent, companies must focus on their employment value proposition (EVP): what employees get out of working for a specific organization. And the most important thing a company can do to boost its EVP doesn't relate to salary, benefits or job security, but to increasing workers' skills and long-term employability. Many school systems (see here and here) are beginning to get that--and some school leaders have started to change the culture of stasis in the districts they control.

But good ideas need to be replicated on larger scales, and new ideas should have the chance to play out. How about adopting the approach, favored by Ernst & Young and much of the corporate world, of using young, vibrant employees to recruit others like them? Or how about soliciting suggestions from the most promising teachers, and giving them the opportunity to work intimately with their superiors on management issues?

The more talent we can bring into the teaching ranks, the more vibrant and dynamic our schools will become. It's tough to besiege institutions that have spent years erecting walls of defense; it's somewhat easier to infiltrate them with savvy reformers and let the walls crumble from the inside out.

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