Player-Coaches for Schools

Let super teachers spread classroom magic Published in The Vancouver Columbian

Some teachers are superstars. Kids and parents know who they are. Teachers and principals know too. So why not give these superstars recognition?

Forget gold stars, cash awards or any other reward for past performance. Think instead about a new role for superstar teachers. When one feels ready for the next challenge, why not assign him or her to a specialist teaching corps?

Such a specialist corps would coach other teachers in specific areas. Imagine a specialist in classroom management helping a new and inexperienced teacher facing, for the first time, 30 restless kids. Or demonstrating technique for a teacher whose students are out of control. Imagine a specialist demonstrating the teaching of mathematics or writing, in a classroom where child are failing in that subject.

Why do we need a specialist teaching corps?

It could keep superstars in teaching. Today, outstanding teachers who hunger for their next career challenge must move up to administration or over to counseling, or get out of the field. Although it won’t be their classroom, a specialist corps keeps great teachers in a classroom.

It also could help attract gifted young people into teaching, by promising a future with prestige and a big paycheck.

A specialist teaching corps should help sustain school reform. Sending a floundering school more money may not make sense, if it is already fumbling with what it has. Sending expert assistance makes more sense.

It addresses a school’s individual needs. If an individualized prescription requires improved teaching in some areas, than a specialist corps can help.

A specialist teaching corps also would provide greater opportunities for children living in poverty. Their families often do not know how to work the system. This makes it easy to neglect the schools that serve them. As a result, such schools often do not get their fair share of outstanding teachers. A specialist teaching corps can help bring the highest quality teaching to the kids who need it most.

There are disadvantages, too. To assure its availability to impoverished schools, the program belongs at the state level. Yet the local community is on the front line and knows the territory best. One way to stay sensitive to local needs would be to give a school district, or a coalition of districts, the option of access to a state-led teaching corps, or funding to run a local corps.

Putting a specialist into another teacher’s classroom can make the hosting teacher very nervous. Yet, teachers are beginning to think well of collaboration. Some even wish aloud for a teacher/mentor program. The critical element will be a full and fair evaluation of the applicant. The rules for screening applicants must win teacher approval.

It would destroy the program if the corps’ only job were to rescue teacher who should be fired. The task of saving a demoralized and failing teacher may be impossible. Besides, who would welcome a coach if it symbolized utter failure? A specialist corps must be large enough to help all teachers, including the best. In fact, entry into the corps should require the applicant first to receive coaching. The coach should know how it feels to have a coach, and it should feel great. Coaching should become what it is for great athletes, musicians, and entertainers. The best welcome coaching—to become even better.

It will be expensive. If these superstar teachers can prove their worth, the top salary should equal that of a top school administrator. Further, there must be enough specialists to reach every school in the state. Fortunately, taxpayers seem ready to support school reform if it promises results.

Last, the idea is mostly untested. There are models, however. Kentucky has an exemplary teacher corps, and the preliminary evidence is positive. Washington State’s fledgling Math Helping Corps has proved itself by dramatically raising math scores on the state’s assessment test, for most of the schools it has served. Not only that, but the presense of a math teaching coach raised scores on other subjects in the assessment as well! All school reforms should meet this test. If a reform can’t show results, then we should move on to the next idea.

Superstars have coaches and they become coaches. It’s time to change the culture of teaching to allow for coaches in the classroom. And it’s time to ask superstar teachers to become coaches and spread their magic.

Dr. Patricia Lines, an attorney and education researcher, is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute (Seattle) and a member of Washington State’s Academic Achievement and Accountability Commission.