Something is Missing from Discussions of New Teacher Career Paths

Blog Post
Flickr / wilhei55
Dec. 17, 2013

In recent years, government agencies, unions, policy wonks, and reform advocates have all weighed in on ways to improve the quality of teachers in our schools. While members of these groups may not agree on much, there is general consensus that we need to better incentivize high-achieving individuals to pursue teaching and to retain strong teachers within schools—although there are varying opinions on how to best do this.

The National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) is the latest organization to provide its perspective on achieving these goals, with its recent report “Creating Sustainable Teacher Career Pathways: A 21st Century Imperative,” jointly authored with the Center for Educator Effectiveness at Pearson. The authors build on an earlier NNSTOY report by recommending a rather comprehensive set of actions that should occur at the national, state, and local levels to craft teacher career pathways that attract, develop, and retain highly skilled teachers.

But these recommendations omit one strategy for which many teachers yearn: formal opportunities to influence education policy and practice decisions beyond their schools' walls.

The NNSTOY/Pearson report outlines how the teaching profession has traditionally provided few opportunities for teachers to access higher status positions without permanently leaving a teaching role. As a result, it contends that many teachers—especially “Gen Y” teachers—have been less attracted to teach, and less likely to stay in teaching for more than a few years.

NNSTOY and Pearson provide an overview of historical attempts to re-envision teachers’ career pathways in the U.S., from differentiated staffing model experiments in the 1970s to the more recent focus on professional learning communities and “teacher leadership” roles. Interestingly, many of the teacher career ladder ideas currently being floated were previously attempted in some districts and states, but ultimately failed as a result of funding instability and teacher resistance stemming from established profession norms of autonomy, egalitarianism, and seniority.

However, the authors highlight that the newest generation of teachers are much more interested in rethinking teacher roles, particularly “hybrid roles” that allow them to spend part of their time in the classroom and part of their time in other roles of service and leadership in education. This is demonstrated by an example of a Teach Plus Boston Policy Fellows proposal that outlines a vision for:

  • restructuring teachers’ career growth opportunities with more rigorous selection processes,
  • a team-based approach to staffing,
  • formal leadership roles with supplemental pay or reduced teaching load, and
  • frequent collaboration and input between school administration and staff.

Despite acknowledging that Teach Plus Policy Fellows “want to work on policy issues” and influence educational decisions, the report doesn't suggest a potential hybrid role for teachers being one where they can inform, and also become better informed about, the policy and practice decisions happening in their districts and states. Over the past week, I spoke separately with a current teacher and a former teacher who each had thoughtful ideas for improving local or state policy to make schools work better for students—ideas that grew directly from reflections on their daily work in schools. But both felt they lacked knowledge of the policymaking process, as well as avenues to share their ideas with the right decision makers.

"These recommendations omit one strategy for which many teachers yearn: formal opportunities to influence education policy and practice decisions beyond their schools' walls."

A handful of “teacher voice” non-profit organizations have sprung up recently which strive to help strong, motivated teachers become more involved in influencing education policy and practice. While these are empowering opportunities for teachers who want to make a difference in education beyond their schools' walls, they require teachers to take on this work in addition to their regular workload, which is already considerable—particularly as states adopt new standards and assessments. But why couldn't we design a career path where some exemplary teachers spend a portion of their regular school time learning about local and/or state policies and programs and providing feedback to education decision makers about ways to ensure these policies and programs have a positive impact on teaching and learning?

The District of Columbia Public Schools’ Teachers Central to Leadership Fellowship Program is one of the few district-led programs I know of that is attempting to undertake such work by compensating a handful of educators to take on these kinds of responsibilities for five weeks during their schools’ summer vacation. DC’s forward-thinking program is a great start, but our education systems would benefit from more regular opportunities for real dialogue between those making policy and practice decisions at the state and district levels and “teacherpreneurs” that are implementing these policies and practices at the school level. Perhaps there are states and districts that have already created these types of teacher roles, and just have not widely publicized them—but these opportunities can’t impact teachers’ career decisions if they aren't aware of them.

Certainly, not all teachers have the right skills to take on these new hybrid policy/practice roles. (That is why in Singapore—a country explored in the NNSTOY/Pearson report—teachers are observed for three years before being placed on a “teaching track,” a “leadership track,” or a “specialist track” focused on research and teaching policy.) But we should be making such opportunities available for those teachers who are well-qualified for them and eager to do them. Doing so should go a long way toward more successfully attracting and retaining strong teachers who improve students’ educational experiences and outcomes, while simultaneously strengthening our overall education systems."