9 big ideas to bolster the teaching profession and boost student learning

Two faculty members help a student inside of a school sewing lab, as other students work in the background
A student receives instruction from teachers at the Community Youth Development Institute on Wednesday in Chicago. The teaching profession is facing a series of crises, but there are solutions that might help. (Christian K. Lee for Chalkbeat)

This is part two in a two-part series. Part one focused on four major challenges facing the teaching profession. Sign up for Chalkbeat’s free weekly newsletter to get these stories and more delivered straight to your inbox.

America’s schools face a number of warning signs about the teaching profession: higher turnover, lower morale, declining interest in the profession among college students, persistent shortages in certain subjects. These problems could have big consequences for students.

“I don’t want to sound alarmist, but it’s been bad,” said Luis Rodriguez, an education researcher at New York University. “The concerning thing is that we as a nation aren’t doing anything systematic to address some of these causes.”

So what should policymakers do?

Chalkbeat reviewed dozens of studies and spoke to a number of researchers and teachers. Although there are no foolproof answers for strengthening the profession and improving teacher quality, the following are some ideas that research suggests might help.

Raise early- and mid-career teacher salaries

There is substantial evidence suggesting that higher pay attracts more talented people into the classroom and keeps them there. But teachers’ take-home pay has fallen further and further behind other college-educated workers’. Surveys show that relatively low pay is a source of frustration among teachers and deters college and high school students from choosing the profession. 

A higher starting salary may be a particularly good way to draw new people into teaching. Raising salaries beyond the first year and through the middle of teachers’ careers is also important, both for attracting new teachers and retaining existing ones. Some research finds that schools are most likely to lose effective teachers after the first couple years in the classroom. 

One way to raise salaries might be to shift some of teachers’ compensation from benefits to take home pay. Teachers receive a greater fraction of pay through benefits compared to other workers, and retirement benefits make teacher compensation heavily backloaded. This might be unappealing to people considering teaching and may cause them to underestimate total teacher pay.

“I think right now current compensation overweights investments in career teachers’ long-term benefits and under-invests in the first year teacher’s starting salary — we back-weight the benefits,” said Matthew Kraft, an education researcher at Brown University. 

Pay teachers more in shortage areas

Severe teacher shortages tend to be clustered in certain schools and subjects — often high-poverty schools and subjects like math, science, and special education. 

Again, pay can help solve this problem. Schools might consider targeted salary increases for those shortage areas. This approach is surprisingly rare, but research shows it can work to draw in and keep teachers. This, in turn, has been shown to boost student learning in some cases. 

One recent study examined a Dallas program that offered large bonuses for teachers to work in struggling schools. The initiative drew an influx of new teachers and boosted student test scores. However, once the bonus program ended, student achievement fell as effective teachers were more likely to leave. That suggests that to make a sustained difference, schools should consider sustained salary increases rather than temporary stipends.

“We have a lot of pretty good, compelling evidence that it can work,” said Rodriguez, who has studied salary incentives in Tennessee.

Turn the first year in the classroom into an apprenticeship

One of the most consistent findings in education research is an intuitive one: Teachers struggle the most in their first year. New teachers are especially likely to leave the classroom, too. To a degree, this is natural. Experience matters. But what is unusual about teaching is its flat structure. New teachers are often doing the exact same job as their veteran colleague across the hall. 

“It was a little rough coming from other jobs in the past where you have a little bit more transition time,” said Michele Koopman, who recently switched careers to enter teaching. “Here it was like: Here’s the key to your classroom, good luck.” 

New teachers might benefit if their first year in the classroom is reinvented into more of an apprenticeship. This could be structured in different ways, but the key would be to give teachers a lighter workload — perhaps half as many classes to teach — and a dedicated mentor or coach. Research shows teachers learn from colleagues and benefit from quality mentorship and coaching

Assign teachers to students more strategically

The benefit of teaching experience is not just about time in the classroom; it’s also about experience working in a specific grade or subject or with specific students. A number of studies have found that teachers perform better when they remain teaching the same grade or subject in back-to-back years. This may also reduce teacher turnover. 

Teachers regularly switch between grades or even subjects from year to year. One study in New York City found that more than 1 in 5 teachers switched roles within the same school. In some cases, there may be good reasons for that. But school leaders might also not appreciate the costs of constant teacher churn. 

If teachers do switch grades, they perform better if they follow the same group of students up to the next grade, a practice known as “looping.” 

Policymakers might consider trying to disseminate information about looping and grade stability and creating incentives to encourage these practices.

Provide teachers with a strong curriculum

Teachers have many responsibilities — often including cobbling together their own lessons and curriculum. Schools could help ease teacher workload by providing quality curriculum and lesson materials that ensure teachers are not creating their own from scratch. One study found that simply providing middle-school math teachers with access to off-the-shelf lessons boosted student learning. 

Koopman, who teaches in west central Illinois, said she didn’t have a math curriculum until half way through her first year as a special education teacher. “So many teachers too don’t feel like they have a great, full curriculum to use, and then they’re constantly trying to find other things to supplement,” she said. 

Give teachers more support to manage student discipline

One recent survey asked teachers what their schools could do to support their mental well-being. Among nearly two dozen options, the second most common response was “more/better support for student discipline–related issues.” Sixty-two percent of teachers said this would help (which was only slightly behind a pay increase). This aligns with numerous anecdotal reports from teachers describing heightened challenges with student behavior and mental health since the pandemic.

Research does not provide simple solutions to this challenge — neither school suspensions nor an alternative of restorative justice has a proven track record, according to existing studies. Schools might consider investing in other support staff, like counselors and social workers, who may reduce disciplinary incidents and are valued by teachers. Schools could consider instituting school-wide behavioral support systems. They could also target extra support to the small number of teachers who appear to have major challenges managing student behavior. And policymakers could experiment and study new approaches to provide schools with actionable ideas. 

Ease the teacher certification bureaucracy

Unnecessary or overly bureaucratic teacher licensure rules can keep good teachers out of the classroom and contribute to teacher shortages. 

Many states, for instance, make it cumbersome for out-of-state teachers to get certified. But there is little evidence this is beneficial. In fact, some studies suggest it’s actively harmful to student learning by limiting the supply of teachers. In one survey of former teachers, over 40% listed a lack of certification reciprocity between states as one factor that would make it more likely they would return to the classroom. 

Simply fixing bureaucratic challenges may help, too. Many former teachers say that “easier and less costly renewal of certification” might lure them back.

Prioritize recruiting and retaining teachers of color

A large body of evidence suggests that students of color, especially Black students, benefit from having teachers of the same race. And yet the share of teachers of color lag far behind the share of students of color.

This diversity gap starts early in the teacher pipeline. College graduates of color are much less likely to enter teaching than white college graduates. This gap has actually grown with successive generations of teachers. This suggests that schools of education could do a far better job recruiting people of color into the profession. 

Teachers of color also often have higher turnover rates because they work in higher-needs schools. Targeted incentive pay, as mentioned above, might help. So could improving working conditions and recruiting more diverse principals

States could also experiment with reducing certification barriers, including licensure tests, that disproportionately exclude teachers of color. Some states waived certain requirements during the pandemic and should carefully examine the consequences of this move.

Consider alternatives to seniority-based layoffs

Education budgets are in flux right now. With COVID relief money running out, some districts may face teacher layoffs in coming years, particularly if politicians don’t step up with additional funding. In some places, the teachers’ contract stipulates that layoffs be done in reverse seniority: last in, first out or LIFO.

Research suggests that this has harmful consequences. First, it requires more layoffs since less experienced teachers are lower paid. Second, such layoffs often disproportionately impact teachers of color. Third, this approach typically means high-poverty schools lose more teachers (since they usually have more novice staff). Fourth, LIFO may deter new entrants into teaching who fear they will quickly lose their jobs in the event of cutbacks. Finally, schools end up losing a number of effective early career teachers. 

“LIFO layoff policies are inequitable, lead to more total job losses, and undercut efforts to recruit talented and diverse teachers,” wrote one pair of researchers after reviewing the evidence.

Districts might consider changing policies or contracts to consider a broader set of criteria when layoffs are necessary, including teacher performance and school-level needs.

Matt Barnum is a national reporter covering education policy, politics, and research. Contact him at mbarnum@chalkbeat.org.

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