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Supply and demand

To close the achievement gap, we must deploy the best teachers to where they are most needed.

December 02, 2007

It's sad but true, as pretty much any parent can tell you, that white, middle-class schoolchildren are more likely to be taught by experienced, highly paid teachers. And it's particularly true in ethnically diverse districts such as L.A.'s. This is a predictable convergence, but one with dismaying implications for the "achievement gap" between white and Asian students and their black and Latino counterparts. Indeed, the achievement gap is at least in part the result of an "instruction gap," and closing it will require re-imagining the ways we evaluate, reward and deploy teachers.

In California, more than half of the teachers who are in training are working in the schools with the highest numbers of minority students. Only 3% of these interns teach in schools with a majority of white students. What this means is that the youngest, least-experienced teachers are assigned to the children who, in many cases, are most in need of expertise. Yes, the state continues to define these teachers as "highly qualified" under the requirements of No Child Left Behind. But that's a dodge that serves administrators, not children. We hope a current lawsuit against the practice prevails. Beyond this, providing a better education for black, Latino and, in fact, all students will require bold new thinking.

First, schools must pay teachers for their actual performance -- not merely an ability to endure. Merit pay antagonizes some teachers unions, which see it as outside interference in the classroom, but the rest of the world is judged by performance. Teachers must accept that some version of merit pay is essential in sorting out great teachers from bad ones. Moreover, merit pay -- or some version of it -- can be used to lure good teachers to low-performing schools.

Second, because under union contracts teachers get to choose where they work, education money follows teachers instead of students. A certain amount should be allocated for each student, wherever that student is enrolled. In schools with higher-paid teachers, that might mean fewer extras such as music; in schools with lower-paid teachers, more counselors and classroom aides. And Title I money should never be used to pretend that students are receiving equal amounts from a school district. That's federal money meant to supplement resources at schools with large numbers of poor children.

Finally, it's time for everyone -- unions, teachers, administrators and parents -- to acknowledge that districts must be allowed to reassign good teachers to low-performing schools. Wise administrators, of course, would avoid forcing teachers into schools where they would be unhappy or resentful -- and thus ineffective. But districts should have the option of sending their best teachers where they are most badly needed -- something that's now almost impossible under union rules. Police departments do this all the time. Crime spikes up in one area, and officers are deployed to that location. The corporate world does it too, opening and closing offices and departments according to market needs -- not the personal preferences of employees. It's not always pleasant, but it allows organizations to respond to changing priorities and is essential to progress.

These tough measures are worth it because the consequence of inaction is so high: Successful school districts simply do not permit instruction gaps that leave minority students behind. Some create their own excellent teachers by working closely with the universities from which they graduate. Others ask their best teachers to undergo rotations of one to three years in struggling schools. And in Long Beach, Supt. Chris Steinhauser says that when he wants to move top teachers to challenging schools, first he simply asks them. Some won't go, but many do and find they enjoy the new work, he says. And it is work. Teaching at struggling minority schools where the students are likely to have greater academic, behavioral and emotional challenges is hard.

This is a touchy issue, but only because of outdated funding formulas that pit students of different classes and races against one another. It doesn't have to be a winner-take-all contest in which some kids get the best teaching and others do not. We can value teachers for effort and performance, and assign them according to need. In today's topsy-turvy system, all it will take is a 180-degree revolution.

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