Retaining good teachers requires more than better paychecks

Better support would also lead to better student outcomes

By Morgan Polikoff

Teachers are incredibly important. No other factor inside the educational system is as consequential as the teacher for determining students’ outcomes. And teachers are also widely respected—large majorities of Americans support teachers and favor salary increases and job protections like tenure.

And yet the teaching profession is still plagued by poor pay and a lack of support in the classroom that make it harder to attract quality teachers, harder to improve their practice and harder to retain them throughout their careers. These problems also put unsustainable strain on budgets.

So how do we reverse some of these protracted trends to ensure that we attract and retain quality teachers moving forward? Yes, at a minimum, teachers in most places should be paid more; currently most teachers are paid less than other professionals with similar levels of education, which keeps the most qualified individuals from pursuing careers in teaching. But adequate compensation must also include adjustments to teacher retirement systems—most state pension plans have unsustainable levels of debt, and they should be reformed to be affordable. A final reform would be to differentiate pay more carefully—either to the teachers who are the most effective or to those who serve in the highest-need areas—in order to improve the incentives of the teacher pay system.

And teachers also deserve greater support, both before and after they enter the classroom. This can come in many forms, from ensuring teachers have access to high quality, adequate curriculum materials that bolster their efforts to teach state standards to giving teachers consistent, careful feedback throughout their careers to help them improve their practice. More broadly, it means ensuring policies (especially assessment and accountability policies) don’t get in the way of good teaching. For example, interim/benchmark assessment systems, which are a common district policy, can be helpful in principle—but too often, they produce results at a grain size and on a time schedule that is far from useful.

Assuming we can continue to make progress on these two fronts, we must also demand reform to the ways teachers can best serve students from historically underserved groups. At a minimum, we must improve the demographic diversity of the teaching force—recent research makes clear that same-race teachers can improve both academic and nonacademic outcomes for underserved students (with no negative effect for students from the majority). But we must also work with teachers to ensure that they hold equal expectations for students from all backgrounds (and treat them equally in terms of discipline). And we must improve the cultural responsiveness of curriculum and instruction to ensure its relevance for an increasingly diverse student body.

Very few people would say they’re satisfied with America’s educational outcomes, and they probably shouldn’t be. Our schools will not—and should not—be expected to solve our social problems alone. But if schools are going to contribute to the solution, we simply must have better, more culturally responsive teaching. And this will not happen without serious reforms to teacher compensation and support systems such as these.

Morgan Polikoff is Associate Professor of Education at USC Rossier and Co-Director of the Center on Education Policy, Equity and Governance. His areas of expertise include K-12 education policy; Common Core standards; assessment policy; alignment among instruction, standards and assessments; and the measurement of classroom instruction.