This commentary was originally published by The Hoover Institution, March 1, 2004
Big-city school districts are desperate to improve the quality of teacher recruits, yet they offer new teachers the worst possible deal: Come to work for us, and we will put you in the tough schools that experienced teachers avoid. You will work with other green teachers who are also struggling and with students and children who think that the school system has abandoned them. Your starting salary will be low, and it will grow only with seniority—regardless of how well you perform or how much your skills (e.g., in science or mathematics) are worth elsewhere. You will be required to join a union that protects senior teachers but does not do much for you.
No wonder teaching is unattractive. No wonder that the ablest students in college avoid education majors, that the ablest education majors avoid teaching, and that the ablest new teachers are the most likely to quit.
On the other hand, teaching is attractive to senior teachers, who get the best job assignments, the most professional and emotional support, and the highest pay. Longtime teachers are paid well regardless of how much their skills are needed or how hard or effectively they work.
Raising starting teacher salaries is an obvious first step, and ensuring that new teachers get assigned to functioning schools where they can get good mentoring is another. But unions often oppose such proposals.
Seniority preferences and skewed pay scales have created a zero-sum relationship in which senior teachers always win and new ones always lose. Higher starting salaries are not enough. Something must be done about the career system that gives new teachers the worst jobs, the least help, and a road to career advancement that favors persistence over performance.
Other government organizations that depend on the quality of new recruits offer a different deal: they rotate them among assignments so they can develop their skills. Moreover, the rate of career advancement depends on performance, and there will always be room at the top for someone who demonstrates special brilliance.
The foreign service and the military, for example, rotate young officers, paying special attention to the ablest. They also protect the possibility of rapid promotion by requiring senior officers to retire if they have not won in the competition for a higher rank. Officers can stay in one rank for just a few years, and only a fraction can be promoted.
This "up or out" process guarantees opportunities for newcomers and quality at senior levels. That is why diplomatic and army careers, in which newcomers get very tough assignments, still attract the likes of former United Nations ambassador Donald McHenry and General Tommie Franks.
Like the foreign service and the military, public education depends on quality people. But only the field of education protects incumbents and fails to create an open opportunity structure for capable newcomers. The results are obvious: education repels the most ambitious young people and disproportionately attracts those who prefer security and dread being judged on performance.