Across the country economic challenges have led to extensive teacher layoffs and significant cuts in school funding. Behind this bad news is the fact that in a few short years most states will be scrambling for skilled, motivated teachers who are ready to enter the classroom and educate the more than 4.3 million U.S. babies born last year. In California alone the state will need to replace one of every three teachers (about 100,000) due to baby boomer generation retirements, expected enrollment increases, and the disturbing fact that about fifty percent of new teachers leave the profession within the first five to six years.
With the accelerating emphasis on standardized test scores negatively impacting teacher motivation and its direct relationship to teacher recruitment and retention, how can we address this challenge? Filling our classrooms with great teachers will take the transformative leadership of committed administrators, teachers, school board members, and other school leaders.
A transformative leader is one who is willing to change himself, help others change, and when necessary, change the system. This is not an easy assignment -- far from it.
A business idiom has made its way into education: "What gets measured is what gets done." Measuring public education today is all about scoring higher than the school next door on standardized tests. That's what earns a recognition banner on the school wall. That's what earns a great teacher a position at a "better" school, and that's what moves an administrative career forward.
As an educator, I can validate that tests scores are important. Educators want to know that students have mastered verbs and nouns, that they are reading at grade level, and that they can add and subtract. But educational leaders also want to know how well a teacher is doing at keeping her students in school and off the streets. When we use tests scores as the sole measurement of success in the classroom, we crush the motivation of some of the hardest working and most caring teachers. It is the rare person who is motivated only by test scores.
Teachers become teachers because they enjoy sharing knowledge. They are interested in the subjects they teach and interested in young people. They take satisfaction from watching students grow and thrive.
Few teachers will receive the accolades of Jaime Escalante, a Los Angeles teacher who helped at-risk students succeed in math and build a brighter future, and whose life was chronicled in the movie Stand and Deliver. Or Erin Gruwell of Freedom Writers fame, who took extra jobs to buy supplies for her struggling English students whom she lifted up through their own stories. These individuals were protagonists in real life when confronted with the need for change. They brought transformation to themselves, their schools, and the students whose lives they changed.
Teachers don't need fame to be transformative leaders. They do need school boundaries expanded to allow creativity, flexibility, and enthusiasm back into the classroom. We need to give teachers time and freedom to teach beyond the test. Teaching that embraces a love of learning is motivating to both students and teachers.
Scarce training resources must be shifted away from workshops designed only to instruct teachers on how to improve standardized test scores. They should be allocated to training that helps make teachers better, more effective classroom leaders who are able to help all children learn. Adding more resources where they are needed most would be an even bigger step in the right direction.
It's critical to recognize that not all student test scores begin at the same threshold. The socio-economic divide reflected in student achievement is real. I strongly object to the accusation that poor kids can't learn. At-risk students have many horrific barriers to overcome before a book is opened or a test taken. Motivating teachers in the schools who serve our neediest students cannot be accomplished by focusing solely on test scores. These teachers must be recognized for the work they do to keep students in school, and the power they wield to transform lives and how they use it.
Transformative leaders want to do meaningful and good work. They want to continue learning how to be better at helping all students learn. They are showing us how to bring creativity to education and applying it in the classroom where they make a difference in students' lives. We can't make a movie for each of these leaders, but we can begin taking actions -- through policy and budget -- that allow teachers, students, school leaders, and communities to be transformed. When we do this, we will also address the need to recruit and retain the hundreds of thousands of teachers needed to educate the next generation.