The American Failure to Recognize Teachers as Irreplaceable

The American Failure to Recognize Teachers as Irreplaceable
Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A square image with an orange background, with dark orange and white text reading "each year, approximately ten thousand irreplaceables in the 50 largest districts leave their districts or leave teaching."
Last week TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) released its new report, "The Irreplaceables," which examines the failure of our education system to retain teachers who have the greatest impact on raising student achievement. As the Huffington Post notes, the report is bound to make waves and drive policy initiatives over the coming year. It was publicized with a ringing endorsement by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and in many ways is a sequel to TNTP’s other seminal report, "The Widget Effect," which is credited with influencing the Department of Education’s Race to the Top competition.

"The Irreplaceables" is pragmatic in its analysis and presentation of solutions. In the four urban districts the researchers surveyed, they found that the 20% of teachers who are most successful in raising student achievement (dubbed the “irreplaceables”) are leaving the profession at almost identical levels to the lowest performing teachers.  But TNTP also learned that three out of four of these top teachers would remain in their schools if their top concerns—ranging from school culture to public recognition—were addressed. 

There’s already a great deal of discussion about the report’s policy implications: the same arguments that have been raised for and against teacher tenure, merit pay, and evaluation models will be debated again. But let’s go beyond pragmatism and talk blue sky.  Something is rotten in our country’s perception of teachers, and it has to change before we'll see a true revolution in the results—both the quality of the overall teaching population and student outcomes. 

In the long term, and as Finland has taught us, attracting the best and brightest to the profession and then retaining them in the schools that need them the most isn’t just about management strategies or discreet policy changes. It’s about whether a country’s citizens and leaders recognize teachers as indispensable and afford them the high status that reflects their importance.

Here’s a fun experiment: take a walk down the street and introduce yourself to three random strangers. In the first conversation, introduce yourself as a heart surgeon.  In the second, as an assistant district attorney. And in the third, as a high school social studies teacher. Gauge the reactions. 

If you noticed that your final conversation generated less enthusiasm than the previous two, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The links between one’s profession and one’s social status are engrained and reinforced constantly. Take salary—the connection between how much society values your profession and how much you’re paid is hard to avoid. Last year, the average annual income for a primary care physician was $170,000. The most successful teachers rarely make half of that. 

The disparities exist because many Americans believe medicine and law require something that teaching does not: rarified knowledge and immense skill.  And yet I would argue that our country’s greatest teachers have a skill set and knowledge base that is just as unique—and painstakingly developed—as our country’s best practitioners of medicine and law.

Until the perception of teachers changes, I’m not confident that we can do much about the fact that our teaching force comes primarily from the bottom two-thirds of college graduates with nearly half being from the bottom third. Of course, there are organizations working to attract graduates in the top of their class to teaching, including TNTP and Teach For America. But the number of teachers recruited and placed by these groups are a drop in the bucket of the overall teaching population.

TNTP’s report implores principals to do what the most effective managers do in any field—aggressively work to recruit and retain top talent. It also urges districts and state governments to enact reforms that will help principals keep invaluable educators.

But keeping top talent in our schools and attracting more of it is going to take a fundamental reprioritization of education by our government, our colleges and universities, and by the American public.  We need a country-wide conversation that acknowledges our best teachers truly are irreplaceable, and our policies and budgets should reflect as much.


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