IT has become fashionable for critics to blame teachers for the eroding quality of education in the United States, citing low morale and poor training. Other public institutions such as the U.S. military have similar pay scales, and more odious duty, yet they are infused with high morale and top-quality officers.
What can be done to imbue teachers with the same esprit as our armed forces? One approach might be to treat teachers more like military officers. Such reform should start by recognizing the contributions of our best teachers and elevating their authority and esteem. Teaching must become a calling, not a job. This would require a holistic overhaul of the educational system and the goring of many sacred cows.
Inadequate teachers must be identified and replaced. Test scores, however, are a bad indicator of teacher effectiveness because students are affected by so many things outside their teachers’ control. Instead, teachers should be evaluated by their students, their principals and each other.
To prevent grade inflation (for example, all teachers being rated “excellent”), the evaluators should rank teachers from best to worst. Each year, the worst teachers (bottom 5 percent, for example) should be released, even if they are otherwise competent teachers. This allows for the hiring of better-educated, hungrier, more inspirational replacements, while the proud survivors remain diligent about increasing their skills.
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The U.S. military uses this up-or-out system when considering soldiers for promotion. It is no fun for mediocre-but-competent soldiers who are released, but it is an effective way to gradually improve the overall quality of the force.
After identifying the best teachers, they should be assigned to the worst schools. The U.S. Navy does not deploy their SEAL teams to embassy duty; they send their elite troops to the world’s hellholes where they can do the most good. We should assign our elite teachers the same way. We must also recognize their sacrifices in a non-monetary way that would make them proud to accept the challenge.
One way to recognize teacher competence would be to require them to wear uniforms. Uniforms convey respect and authority. Some teachers might scoff at the idea of wearing uniforms with modest insignia that would convey their length of service or awards for teaching excellence. But parents and students would certainly respect a row of stripes along the cuff of a teacher’s sleeve, for example, that would inform the world that this teacher has survived 15 years of sink-or-swim evaluations and was ranked among the top 5 percent of all teachers.
If the public expects teachers to exhibit the esprit of military officers, while being subjected to up-or-out evaluations and mandatory service in poor schools, teachers deserve to be paid at a level commensurate with those officers.
This is already the case for younger teachers, but this would entail significant pay increases for those exceptional teachers with more than 10 years of experience. Most officers are expected to earn a master’s degree by the time they achieve the rank of major, and a newly promoted major after 10 years of service currently earns about $79,000 per year.
Direct comparisons are difficult, but a teacher with 10 years of service and a master’s degree today earns about $59,000 per school year, according to the Seattle Education Association.
Teachers deserve the same respect as military officers. Although they are not expected to die for their students, be on duty 24-7 or spend years away from their families, teachers do work harder than most people and for a noble cause.
These reforms would no doubt elicit howls of protest from the education lobbyists who would bristle at the militarization of education. They would come up with all sorts of reasons why teaching is not suitable to the same sort of top-down culture that exists in the military. But teaching is one of the primary responsibilities of every military officer and non-commissioned officer.
Why is it that the armed forces can educate their personnel effectively while maintaining high morale among their teachers, while their civilian counterparts cannot?
Dick Dickinson is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and a Seattle-based novelist.