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Treat teachers like professionals

Good schools rely on good teachers. That much we know. But when it comes down to doing something bold to make that happen, Texas and many local districts are falling short.

Efforts to address those issues are being done gradually with many disconnected from what schools — and teachers — need to do the job right in today’s world. A handful of Texas districts, including Austin and Houston, have initiatives that are going in the right direction. But their progress is slowed without support from — and better collaboration with — the Legislature and higher-education community.

We urge state and local education officials to pay attention to a new report by the Texas Teaching Commission aimed at improving the quality of teaching and student learning. What is different about this report is that it takes a comprehensive approach to the issue with specific recommendations for the Legislature, Texas Education Agency, the state’s teaching colleges and local school boards.

It tackles the thorny issue of teacher pay, which is too low in general to recruit, train and retain enough quality teachers to fill jobs, particularly in shortage areas of math, science, technology, bilingual instruction and special education. And it deals with evaluations, another controversial topic.

In Texas, the state minimum salary for a brand new teacher who started this school year is $27,320. That salary nearly meets state eligibility requirements for receiving food stamps for a family of four. Also, the state salary schedule for teachers tops out when teachers accrue 20 years of experience for which they earn $44,270.

Many districts pay teachers more than what the minimum pay scale subscribes and give cost-of-living pay raises on top of that. The Legislature puts money into the salary schedule periodically to raise minimums. But setting pay at such low levels has a negative impact on attracting college-educated people to teaching. It’s an antiquated system that gives everyone the same amount because it is based on seniority. It does not discern the higher performers from the lower performers, recognize market forces that place premiums on teachers in shortage areas or acknowledge teachers who are putting in longer hours in tougher jobs in schools with large numbers of students from low-income families.

Under recommendations presented by the teaching commission, the Legislature and local school districts would work together to craft new compensation systems to pay teachers like professionals.

The report recommends eliminating the state’s minimum pay scale for teachers. Instead, a teacher would start his or her career with an annual salary of $41,000. Also, the Legislature would allocate general revenue to school districts to provide more compensation/incentives for teachers who meet standards based more on market factors than years of service.

The Texas Education Agency would be required to collect and report salary information by content and grade level and examine cost-of-living data by region. Local school districts would pick up the ball from there, creating incentives for teachers who serve in high-shortage areas and hard-to-staff jobs.

Compensation tied to market factors and performance would help teacher colleges recruit people to the field. For their part, teaching colleges would work with local school districts and the Texas Education Agency to redesign teaching preparation programs — traditional and alternative — and develop better training programs for teachers in the field to meet the needs of districts.

The report also calls on the Texas Education Agency to design a framework for evaluating teachers, which districts would refine with input from teachers and administrators.

There is an urgency to do something now in improving and expanding the teaching profession, as enrollments in Texas public schools balloon to nearly 5 million along with the need for well-trained and educated workers.

As Mike Moses, a teacher who became a school superintendent and later Texas Education Commissioner and who is now chairman of the teaching commission, says, “Teachers are the absolute backbone of our society.”

We agree and hope the Legislature shows some backbone with action.

Austin American-Statesman

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