Sunday, August 22, 2004

Teacher quality key to student success

By Bob Suess
Guest columnist

It seems like yesterday that Dr. James Walker, my constitutional law professor at Wright State University, interrupted instruction to challenge the education majors (myself included) to become inner-city schoolteachers. His argument was that we were most needed where teacher quality was the single most important factor in student academic success.

More than 30 years later and after 29 years with Cincinnati Public Schools, I am convinced that Dr. Walker's solution is the only educational reform initiative that can save urban education.

Our failure to improve city schools is not that we lack an adequate understanding of the ills plaguing them or even that we lack adequate reform proposals. To the contrary, we understand too well the myriad problems, and we are armed with an arsenal of reform proposals to counteract every one. We try to use all available resources to implement all possible strategies to try to fix all problems by simultaneously implementing 1,001 reforms, each designed to address one of the identified ills.

This shotgun approach only serves to dilute our finite resources and to doom every reform effort to eventual replacement by the next "flavor of the day" initiative.

Our one chance to save education in urban districts is to focus our resources with laser-like precision on a single comprehensive, systematic, long-term campaign that will improve student academic achievement. That campaign should be to staff our inner-city schools with the most outstanding teachers that our country can produce.

In an ideal world, every classroom would have an outstanding teacher, but we lack the wherewithal to make that dream a reality. In the alternative, we must devote our nation's resources to:

• Increasing the pool of outstanding teachers.

• Attracting those teachers, both new and experienced, to classrooms where they are needed most and where they can do the most good.

While such a campaign cannot be presented in its entirety here, it would necessarily involve:

• Full scholarships to outstanding urban teaching candidates.

• A compensation package that would make urban teachers the best paid (by far) teachers in our nation.

• Attractive working conditions with reduced class sizes and a wealth of educational resources.

• Community-based incentives including tax rebates and discounts on goods and services.

We are, after all, asking our most talented individuals to tackle our nation's most challenging and important work.

This is not to suggest that my CPS colleagues are not good teachers. In fact, the majority are competent and hard-working. But, given the scope and magnitude of the challenges, "good" simply isn't good enough. We need an elite corps of stars and superstars that are capable of overcoming insurmountable odds to achieve extraordinary results.

I have worked with exceptional faculties at both Shroder Paideia and Hughes Center, and I have witnessed how the efforts of a "critical mass" of outstanding teachers can create "islands of academic excellence." With a sufficient supply of outstanding teachers, there is no reason to believe that we cannot accomplish on a district level what already has been accomplished at the school level.

Any campaign to attract and retain "the best and the brightest" Americans into inner-city classrooms will not be accomplished simply, quickly or cheaply. It is not a fight that can be won easily, but it is a fight worth fighting.

As a fiscal conservative, I am sensitive to the conviction that we cannot solve social problems by simply throwing money at them. By the same token, we cannot solve serious problems without a serious commitment of our nation's resources. If we can commit billions of dollars to fight terrorism that threatens our country from abroad, then we certainly can and must commit commensurate resources to fight an even more serious threat to the very democratic principles upon which our country is founded.

In the early 1960s, President Kennedy defined the civil rights issue in moral terms. Society's responsibility to educate our urban youth requires a similar moral commitment.

In fact, if we were in Dr. Walker's class, he just might challenge us to pledge "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor."


Bob Suess is the principal of Hughes Center in the Cincinnati Public Schools.

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