Teachers Deserve More than a Free Burrito

June 27th, 2014

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“Thank you Mrs. Mullinax for recognizing my unique talents and making me feel special.”

Another school year is coming to a close, and thousands of statements just like this are flooding the internet as politicians and school officials remind us to #ThankATeacher. Each year before classes end, Teacher Appreciation Week rolls around with the intent of showering teachers with the praise, acknowledgement, and freebies they rightfully deserve. Chipotle was even offering teachers free burritos.

But the fact that our society has to make a concerted effort once a year to appreciate teachers should be a telling sign that we don’t value teaching as the challenging and demanding profession that it actually is. And even though a feel-good Twitter campaign might raise the profile of teaching for one week each year, it does nothing to address the outdated policies currently keeping our high-achieving Millennials from entering the profession.

In order to truly advance the profession, we need to muster the political will to finally revisit the outdated policies that treat teachers as interchangeable “widgets,” fail to attract top-tier candidates, and push excellent teachers out the door every year. The most significant way we can honor our teachers is to modernize the profession so that it meets the needs and challenges of a 21st century career, through a major revamp to the way we recruit, prepare, and promote teachers.

First, we must make a determined effort to raise the bar of entry into the profession. We know there is a problem when a bulk of our teacher prep programs have such low standards that they accept almost every single applicant and, even worse, are able to churn out hundreds of thousands of teachers each year in part on the taxpayer’s dime without having to show any real measures of accountability in return. Not surprisingly given this backdrop, high-achieving Millennials in a new Third Way poll saw the education major as a joke, with only 9% labeling it “very difficult” (more than a quarter of those who said the same about nursing) and only 37% saying those who pursue it are “smart”—not exactly a strong casting call for our top-performing grads to enter the profession.

In order to change this perception and attract high-achieving Millennials into teaching careers, we should implement a rigorous national teacher licensure exam that will not only allow us to make a true apples-to-apples comparison of the quality of teacher prep programs and close those that don’t meet the standard, but will also create much-needed portability in the profession. Only 43% of Millennials polled said they see themselves in the same job for less than 5 years, so one way we can really show teachers our appreciation is to stop penalizing them for choosing to participate in the highly-mobile modern workforce. This includes taking steps to create licensure and retirement systems that allow teachers to move freely from state-to-state without having to lose out on previously-earned benefits, or in some cases, re-start the certification process completely from scratch. By implementing a national licensure exam and transitioning teachers to portable cash-balance retirement plans, a teacher in Michigan could seamlessly transition to a teaching position in Massachusetts for the very first time.

Last but certainly not least, in order to truly value our teachers, we must pay and promote them like the professionals that they are. This means tearing down outdated “step-and-ladder” policies that willfully ignore job performance in pay, promotion, and hiring decisions and instead setup an infrastructure that is designed to reward excellence and pay good teachers what they’re worth. In most schools today, seniority automatically determines who gets leadership positions, a raise, or a pink slip: essentially leaving effectiveness and effort completely off the table. No effort to appreciate teachers can be worth its salt so long as our policies maintain treating the worst teachers the same as the best.

It has been well over a decade since our country last passed a major piece of education reform legislation. In fact, the students who started kindergarten the year No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was enacted are graduating from high school this month. We will need many of these high-achieving “NCLB babies” to want to enter the teaching profession and educate the next generation. But until we make the effort to modernize teaching, we cannot fault those students for wanting to choose a career that offers flexibility, esteem, and opportunities for advancement. Don’t get me wrong, free burritos are delicious, but professional prestige and respect is exponentially better.

Tamara Hiler is the Social Policy & Politics Fellow for Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington, D.C.