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Master Teacher Programs Worthy

February 25, 2002

By William L. Bainbridge


The discussions in the Bexley (OH) City School District regarding a "Master Teacher Plan" to improve that system's already outstanding program brought mixed emotions.

Bexley residents fund their schools at high levels. One of the benefits is small classes:13 to 23 students per class. Bexley's proposal calling for ongoing teacher training and professional development of master teachers to help train other teachers would cause a slight increase in class size to between 13.5 and 24 students. However, studies from the national Educational Research Service clearly indicate such a slight increase would have no significant impact on teaching or learning.

On the one hand, researchers and educational experts throughout the country have been working hard to encourage districts to implement such programs for many years , so it was good to know one was being recommended in central Ohio. On the other hand, it was frustrating to see the resistance of well-meaning parents who do not understand the benefits such a program can have for even a "lighthouse district" like Bexley.

In 1966, a highly successful and nationally known school administrator, Martin W. Essex, authored what he called an "Executive Teacher Plan." Essex, then Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction , told a Martha Holden Jennings Foundation audience at Capital University (in none other than Bexley) that it "...is what teachers don't have that concerns us most deeply. If the American school is to succeed in its enormous new responsibilities, its teachers must be better equipped for the highly complex professional responsibility. Implementing the concept of the 'Master Teacher' would be a great breakthrough in elevating the prestige and rewards of the professions." Essex went on to design a common sense and businesslike approach to the organization of human resources in the public schools. Regrettably, this former President of both the American Association of School Administrators and the Council of Chief State School Officers was ahead of his time.

Recent work we have been doing conducting Educational Effectiveness Audits for school systems from New Hampshire to Florida to California leads to the conclusion that Essex was right. One Polk County, FL, school we recently visited in Winter Haven, has implemented its own form of "Master Teacher Program." It is no coincidence that they are the only high poverty (75% free and reduced-price lunch) school in the state of Florida to receive a State Grade of "A" based on their test scores and other key indicators for the last three years.

There is no doubt that research proves in order to improve learning , we must have the best, most experienced teachers in our classrooms.

It is widely known that in this country we are facing one of the worst teacher shortages in years. With good reason, education officials throughout the country fear they will be unable to fill all the teaching positions. Of those actually entering the teaching profession nationwide, the attrition rate is phenomenal. According to the National Education Association, between 20 and 30 percent of new teachers in rural and suburban school districts leave the field within the first five years. In urban school districts, nearly 50 percent quit in the same time frame.

This grim picture is further complicated by the fact that teaching professionals are employed at the same status level regardless of their expertise and skills. This socialistic system does not provide hardworking or ambitious people with the recognition requisite to keep them in the teaching profession. Few or no opportunities for advancement are provided unless the teacher leaves the classroom for administration, and few or no incentives are provided for teaching excellence.

Furthermore, the best minds in the various disciplines are choosing not to enter teaching because they can earn recognition and achieve higher success in other occupations. We are losing our best teachers before they ever enter a classroom.

The "Master Teacher" plan provides motivation for good teachers to stay in the classroom. It also develops a support system for beginning, average and struggling educators.

We must begin to differentiate levels for public school teachers, as we do for higher education teaching staff, corporate employees, healthcare and manufacturing workers.

While recognizing teachers through increased responsibility and status has been repugnant to many, the times demand recognition of outstanding teachers through assignment and status variations in terms of instructional influence and direction.

America's colleges and universities are the envy of the world. Nearly every higher education institution in this nation has a career ladder for instructors to move up to full or even endowed professor. Our schools need to consider a career ladder which includes provisional, professional, master and executive teachers.

The school reform movement focuses attention on improving academic achievement for all students from all backgrounds-and rightly so. Debates about increased funding, proficiency testing and standardized curricula as means to improve student learning abound-but what about the other side of the equation? We have all heard the computer programmers' maxim: "Garbage in, garbage out." If the input is lousy-if children are not receiving the highest quality instruction possible-then no amount of funding or testing, nor the best-designed curriculum, can improve the academic output and promote high student achievement.

Public education should be no different in terms of creating levels of responsibility than the rest of the marketplace.

While student learning outcomes are critically important, we should shift the debate about school accountability away solely from student test results and look at what we can do to improve the quality of teaching and the desirability of teaching at all levels in our nation's public schools. The "Master Teacher" plan is one way.

is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

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