Florida’s highest K-12 priority should be recruiting and retaining more great teachers – the rest of it is really just a distraction

The highest priority in K-12 education for the State of Florida should be increasing the number of talented individuals who are attracted to teaching careers and then retaining them in the profession.

We hear and read so much about a blizzard of education policies – charters, vouchers, testing reform, graduation requirements and personalized learning, among others.

But let’s simplify the discussion: Any proposal that wouldn’t attract more strong individuals into careers teaching our diverse population of students should be dismissed out of hand.

When talking about recruiting and retaining strong teachers, it’s tempting to focus exclusively on the issue of salaries and other forms of compensation. Certainly, compensation matters. Indeed, a recent survey of undergraduates in the fields of chemistry, computer science, math and physics who said they were at least “slightly” interested in teaching reported that financial incentives such as higher salaries and student loan forgiveness would significantly increase their interest.

But when the same investigators (who were on a team led by the American Physical Society) asked early career middle and high school teachers in the same fields what they liked least about teaching, three issues were cited more frequently than salaries – “hostile/unresponsive administration”, “excessive non-teaching obligations”, and “demanding hours/amount of work”. That is, the quality of the working environment created by school, district and state leaders was even more important to the teachers who were surveyed than salaries.

The most powerful teacher recruiting moment I have ever witnessed came in March of this year when a team from Orange County Public Schools visited my Physics Department at Florida State University to talk with our students. In the days before the meeting, I had shared with our students that Orange County is an outstanding urban district, having won the Broad Prize in 2014. I had also told the students about the district’s “Calculus Project”, which is Florida’s leading initiative for drawing students from disadvantaged backgrounds into the STEM pipeline that leads to high-paying careers in fields like engineering and computer science.

The OCPS recruiting team was led by Bridget Williams, who is Chief of Staff to the district’s superintendent, Barbara Jenkins. Dr. Williams, a former principal at Jones High School, told our physics majors that the children of Orange County need them. It was a simple yet powerful message delivered by an important educational leader. Several of our students were persuaded to join OCPS in the district’s cutting edge work because they saw they would be valued by the school district’s leadership. Several more are now thinking seriously about choosing a career in teaching – at least if they are able to join a team that seems as focused on excellence as OCPS is.

As tempting as it might be to try “fixing” K-12 education with policy prescriptions or computers, there is no escaping the fact that effective education relies on strong personal relationships, including relationships between students and teachers and those between teachers and leaders. Talented individuals like FSU’s physics majors will be more likely to choose teaching careers if they know they will be working with strong but sensitive leaders who are determined to keep outside noise from interfering with the sacred mission of opening the doors of opportunity for every student.

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