Getting great teachers

ByChrista Coleman (op-ed)

Read the full article at >

During the 2012 election season, we were flooded with information from all sides. While politics absorbed most of our attention, there was one report that came out to relatively little fanfare. But its findings have crucial ramifications for our entire economy, right down to how we educate our children.

In September, the World Economic Forum released its annual Global Competitiveness Report, which ranks 144 countries on the strength and competitiveness of their economies. For the fourth straight year, the U.S. has slipped in the rankings. We are now in seventh place.

One of the criteria the WEF uses to determine competitiveness is the strength of a country’s education system. This year, the U.S. ranks 38th out of 144 in the quality of our primary education, and 28th in the quality of higher education.

We can do better than that. But how?

We could pour more money into our schools, in hopes that more dollars equal more learning. Or we could cultivate another kind of resource, which has been shown to improve student outcomes more than any other single factor: great teachers.

Having worked on behalf of underserved students for most of my career, I know the need for high-quality instruction in all schools, regardless of demographics. At KIPP Adelante Preparatory Academy charter school, where I am the principal, great teachers are the key to everything we do. Our school serves 359 fifth- through eighth-grade students from the Barrio Logan community, 93 percent of whom are African-American or Latino, and 99 percent of whom come from low-income backgrounds. These students come to us significantly below grade level and facing enormous odds against college and career success.

In order to beat those odds, we need to give them the best instruction possible – and more of it. My top goal as a principal is to fill my classrooms with highly qualified, dynamic and inspiring instructors. This should be a reality at all public schools, but too often it’s not. A 2010 report by McKinsey & Company found that, in the countries with the best education systems, 100 percent of the teachers ranked in the top third of their academic class. In the U.S., most of our teachers come from the bottom two-thirds. We need to flip that proportion on its head.

There are already traditional university teacher-training programs that are doing a great job, including at UCSD and San Diego State. But there are many more opportunities we could take advantage of right here in San Diego to get highly talented individuals in the classroom where they’re needed.

One option is to take a page from successful alternative certification programs like Teach For America. Nationwide, Teach For America has a long track record of bringing talented and accomplished college graduates into the teaching profession. Some of these new teachers are recent college graduates, many of whom had never considered a career in education; some are mid-career professionals looking to change course and use their skills for positive change. And Teach For America also recently launched a Veterans Recruitment Initiative to help those who have served our country transition into serving our students.

Another option is to work with colleges and universities to increase the exposure that their students get to teaching and public education. At KIPP Adelante, we have students from UCSD and San Diego State coming to campus every week to tutor. Most of these students are not education majors; they are studying science, math, humanities or the arts. Through this opportunity, they are exposed to the promise and possibility of teaching, while also serving as role models and college ambassadors for our KIPP students. Expanding programs like these would give many more college students a firsthand look at public schools, and put teaching on their radar as a potential career option.

Bringing more great teachers to classrooms is key to our students’ success. And that, in turn, will help ensure the U.S.’s global economic competitiveness for years to come.

Coleman is principal at KIPP Adelante Preparatory Academy.