Rewarding the Right Knowledge and Skills…

One of the defining moments in our TeacherSolutions conversations about rewarding teachers for new knowledge and skills came when we reached consensus about the central premise that not all renewal credits are created equally. 

In order to meet the demands of a poorly defined future, districts–like many of the best businesses in today’s flattening economy–must focus on "value-added" efforts when developing human capacity in their organizations.  Identifying the ever-changing needs of student populations and then addressing local needs quickly is essential if we are to maximize the impact of instruction and guarantee that every child has access to an accomplished teacher.   

How does this change the way that teachers have traditionally been rewarded for their knowledge and skills? 

Perhaps most significantly, we argue that it is no longer appropriate for districts to apply blanket rewards for any degree or continuing education activity.  Instead, we believe that continuing education should be customized toward the needs of the learning communities where teachers are currently working.  By setting priorities and rewarding teachers for pursuing growth in targeted areas, communities can ensure that educators have the kinds of skills necessary for meeting the unique needs of the specific student populations that they serve.

Anecdotal evidence has long supported our contention that professional development efforts–and traditional systems of rewarding teachers for advanced degrees–often fail to develop the right kinds of knowledge and skills in our classroom teachers.  Anyone who has worked in schools for an extended period of time can share stories where new learning had little impact on instruction.  For me, the dozens of hours that I’ve spent in basic computer classes despite demonstrated proficiency were simultaneously wasted yet rewarded.

But empirical evidence continues to pile up demonstrating that learning opportunities for educators are not addressing identified needs.  Consider the following finding from the 2006 North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions Survey, analyzed by the Center for Teaching Quality:  Significant differences exist between the areas where teachers report needing professional development support versus the areas where professional development is currently being provided.  Examples of this gap include:

  1. 50% of teachers surveyed report needing additional help in meeting the needs of students with disabilities while only 17% report having received 10 or more hours of professional development in this area since 2004.
  2. 43% of teachers surveyed report needing additional help in meeting the needs of students with limited English proficiencies while only 9% report having received 10 or more hours of professional development in this area since 2004.
  3. 41% of teachers surveyed report needing additional help in closing the achievement gap while only 21% report having received 10 or more hours of professional development in this area since 2004.

So where are professional development hours (and dollars) being spent?  In areas where teachers express confidence in their existing knowledge and skills:

  1. 51% of teachers surveyed report receiving 10 or more hours of professional development in their primary content area since 2004 while only 12% report needing additional help in this area.
  2. 60% of teachers surveyed report receiving 10 or more hours of professional development in reading strategies since 2004 while only 29% report needing additional help in this area.
  3. 43% of teachers surveyed report receiving 10 or more hours of professional development in methods of teaching since 2004 while only 15% report needing additional help in this area.

This inconsistency between the kinds of professional development that teachers need versus the kinds of professional development that they are receiving–or choosing to pursue– is representative of a fundamental inefficiency on the part of schools, districts and states to respond to existing challenges.  Instead of systematically investing in time-sensitive and school specific learning, decisions are being made–and dollars wasted–on guaranteed quality professional development opportunities that are having little impact on student achievement. 

By attaching compensation to professional learning necessary for meeting the needs of current student populations, teachers will become more selective about their professional development choices and districts will be more deliberate about the learning opportunities that they offer.  What’s more, communities can be empowered, working together with district leaders to identify skills that ought to take priority in local schools. 

Let’s face it:  Schools have a responsibility to ensure that students succeed academically and socially in the context of their communities.  By using compensation to focus the kinds of knowledge and skills that we are cultivating in our educators, we can improve instruction and meet the challenges of teaching and learning in the 21st Century.