Expert Comment

Expert Comment

America's Teacher Advancement Program

n business, the most important lesson I have learned is that there is one currency that always plays the key role in forming value, and that is human capital — the knowledge, skills and experiences of people. In education, the same principle applies. We know from research that aside from home and family, the single most important factor driving student performance is the quality of the teacher in the classroom.

The most effective teachers produce as much as five times the learning gains of the least effective teachers. Results from landmark studies in the states of Tennessee and Texas, for example, have shown that students who performed equally well in reading and math are separated by as many as 54 percentile points just three years later due to the quality of their teachers.

Now based on these facts, you would think that the American K-XII system would be structured in a way to attract large numbers of talented people to teaching, and create an environment in which they would thrive. Sadly, this is not the case.

The fact is that none of the hundreds of costly school-reform efforts of the past decades have had the scope, force or focus to attract high-calibre talent into the teaching profession, and reward and motivate the talent to stay. That is a primary reason why more than 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education mandated equal opportunity in education for all American children, over 50 percent of African-American and Hispanic fourth-grade (class IV) students cannot read. In fact, barely one-third of grades IV, VIII and XII students in the US reach proficiency levels in reading or math set by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) — the level of achievement required to secure high quality jobs in the 21st century. Such glaring achievement gaps are the driving force behind the federal No Child Left Behind Act, enacted in 2002 to raise the bar of attainment for all students. Congress emphasised the crucial need for talented teachers in meeting this challenge, by including a provision calling for states to put a highly qualified teacher in every public school classroom.

With a law in place to focus the nation’s attention on student achievement and teacher quality, the opportunity exists to implement comprehensive reforms essential to developing the quality of teachers and ensure that every young person is prepared for a bright future in the age of the knowledge worker. I say this because over the past two decades, I have had the good fortune to interact with more than 2,100 exemplary educators of the Milken Family Foundation National Educator Awards, as well as hundreds of other outstanding teachers. Our work with these educators confirms that we can provide children with the high-quality teachers they need and deserve, provided we commit ourselves to:

• Teacher quality development strategies that provide powerful opportunities for career advancement, professional growth and competitive compensation; and

• Ensure these strategies address all the key considerations for successful school reform — viz, a human capital focus, comprehensive in scope, based on sound research, and with effective measures for evaluation, continuity and sustainability.

Based on these key objectives, we created the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP), a research-based whole school reform programme to attract, develop, motivate and retain the best talent in America’s teaching profession. TAP is based on four interrelated elements: multiple career paths to offer opportunities for more responsibility and commensurate pay; ongoing applied professional growth to provide embedded professional development regularly during the school day; instructionally focused accountability to incorporate fair evaluations based on clearly defined, research-based standards; and performance-based compensation to allow salaries and bonuses to be tied to responsibilities, classroom performance and student achievement growth.

Though only in its sixth year of implementation, TAP schools are outperforming control group schools in terms of student performance in a meaningful way. We are also experiencing improvements in the characteristics of teacher applicants to TAP schools, in teacher retention rates, and in high levels of teacher satisfaction and collegiality.

TAP has made gains in student achievement because it provides teachers with the development opportunities and support to address specific student needs through data-driven strategies. By targeting these areas of need, TAP teachers have seen growth in students of varying educational levels and cultural backgrounds. In fact, TAP has seen quality teachers moving from more affluent schools to high-need schools, where we typically lack the necessary talent to close our most challenging achievement gaps.

We know what works. But it is only through exceptional leadership that we will be able to implement the right strategies to assure that every student in every school in America is guided and taught by the kind of professional — the kind of person — worthy of the honorific ‘teacher’.

(Lowell Milken is chairman of the Milken Family Foundation, which he co-founded in 1982 to pursue advances in education and medical research)