Teachers are paramount in improving learning. So giving more students access to strong teachers should be the central theme of any proposal to improve K-12 education.

In the Summer 2011 issue of Education Next, Stanford’s Eric Hanushek said this:  “The quality of the teachers in our schools is paramount: no other measured aspect of schools is nearly as important in determining student achievement.”

If you accept this assertion, as many education policy experts do, then there is a simple test for whether an education policy proposal would be good or bad for students:  Would the proposal increase the number of students who are taught by strong teachers?  

Of course, this question is simple in concept.  Actually answering it is much more difficult, at least most of the time.

Start with this:  Strong teachers deeply understand the subjects they are teaching.  Middle school math teachers must be able to do algebra at a high level effortlessly.  A middle school math teacher who struggles with algebra is not going to be successful.  In fact, a 2011 study by researchers at Michigan State University showed this is a particular problem in the U.S.

Of course, being good at math doesn’t by itself make an individual a strong teacher.  There is so much more to it – the understanding that children learn best through intense social interactions (including one-on-one interactions with the teacher) and the ability to juggle twenty-five children (and their parents) in such a way that the learning environment remains orderly.  And that is really just a start.

But it’s fair to insist that a proposal to make changes at the school, district or state level should, for example, give more middle school students the opportunity to be taught by strong math teachers.

Florida’s HB 7069 would initiate an effort called Schools of Hope to change the way educational opportunities are provided to students in some of the state’s toughest places.  The proposal would do this in two ways.  One is to provide incentives for charter school operators with strong track records to open facilities that would serve these students.  The second would be to provide grants to traditional district schools to enhance services that students can receive through the school – a scheme known as “wraparound” services.

But to be successful, both schemes – for both charter and traditional schools – would have to bring more strong teachers in for their students.  As the Orlando Sentinel reported, Carver Middle School in Orlando – a traditional district school – is now making a serious effort to do exactly this.  They are offering bonus packages that add up to as much as $70,000 over three years.

In fact, in addition to the Schools of Hope proposal HB 7069 also includes two teacher bonus programs – one “old” and one new.  The “old” one is the Best and Brightest program that has given teachers who scored well on their own SAT or ACT tests and earned “highly effective” evaluations substantial bonuses for the last two years (first year teachers can earn the bonuses just for having the high SAT/ACT scores).  This year under HB 7069, those bonuses would be $6,000 each.  The new bonus program would reward every teacher in every charter and traditional district school who earns an evaluation of “highly effective” a $1,200 bonus.  It is likely that the “highly effective” bonuses would cost about $90 million, dwarfing the expenditure on the “old” Best and Brightest program.  The new program would also provide bonuses of up to $800 to each “effective” teacher – depending on how much money is left over in the $234 million bonus pot after the Best and Brightest teacher bonus program, the $1,200 “highly effective” bonus program and a new principal bonus program are funded.  However, the $800 bonuses could cost as much as $70 million.  (Thanks to Kristen Clark for civilly but convincingly pointing out the “up to” aspect of the $800 program).

But back to the controversial Schools of Hope idea that seems to pit charter schools against traditional district schools.  My kids attended traditional public schools, Catholic schools and even a “ritzy” (by Tallahassee standards) private school.  I’ve worked with teachers from traditional public schools and charter schools.  I’ve seen some terrific teaching in all of these schools.  I have also seen in every one of these categories of schools teachers who really should be doing something else for a living.  I don’t know the answer to the question of whether Schools of Hope would make things better for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.  But I am convinced that the very existence of this proposal should prompt each of us to take a clear-eyed look at the school in which we are involved.  Here is a guarantee:  There is at least one teacher at your school who should not be teaching there.  If you don’t agree with me, then you are almost certainly not being honest with yourself.

Governor Scott is presently mulling over how to respond to HB 7069.   Much of his calculus is political and concerns how the action he chooses – approve or veto – will affect his campaign to win a seat in the U.S. Senate next year.  But I hope Governor Scott and his staff are also thinking about whether HB 7069 would give more of the state’s students the opportunity to work with strong teachers.

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