A governor's quest for quality teaching

Interview / Jim Hunt

No one is more interested in what makes a good teacher than four-term North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt. A national study ranked North Carolina as one of the top two states in improving teaching. Governor Hunt also pursued that goal as chairman of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. He spoke with the Monitor about approaches to improving schools and recruiting better teachers. Excerpts follow:

On teacher quality as a part of improving school and student performance:

The most important thing we can do to improve our schools and help our children learn more is to see that we have the best teachers possible.... Our No. 1 strategy ought not to just be fancy buildings, or great technology, or rigorous testing programs. All of those are important. The most important thing is having a good teacher for every child every year.

On the central obstacle to producing better teachers:

We have not acknowledged [the need for better teaching] as our primary strategy in past years. People assumed that the teachers would be there. No. We've got to say explicitly, 'If we're going to have the best schools for our children, we've got to recruit and retain the best teachers....'

We have to have high and rigorous standards for those teachers.... Second, we have to pay enough in order to get and keep the best. And third, we ought to pay for performance ... pay more money to teachers who really prove they are especially good.

On criticism of the quality of teacher-education programs:

For a long time, schools of education were not doing a nearly good enough job in this country. But I think in the last several years [they] have really been waking up.... They need to do more. They have the absolute responsibility to prepare young people both to know their subject matter and to master the pedagogy - the ability to teach successfully.

On training people with expertise in other professions to be teachers:

You have plenty of people who are leaders in different areas: in business, in the military, in all kinds of social serving agencies, who can turn out to be terrific teachers. We've got to encourage a lot of them to change careers to go into teaching.... We have these hundreds of thousands of vacancies that are going to be coming up and ... career teaching has got to be so attractive they would want to go into it.

On the success of using mentors and other steps to slow the loss of new teachers:

I think it's beginning to pay off. As a matter of fact, we're now extending mentoring for new teachers to the first two years. And we're providing all kinds of professional development opportunities.... Our University of North Carolina system is developing partnerships between schools of education and the local school systems....

Schools of education don't just prepare students in the first four or five years to be teachers, they also have this mission of reaching out to the K-12 schools ... taking courses out there to them, working with them on school-reform ideas, very aggressively trying to help them recruit and get and and prepare the best teachers. Nobody needs continued help, encouragement, support like a new teacher does. It's probably the toughest job in America. It is the most important job in America. And we need to give them all the help we can, and we need to pay them fairly.

On backing away from testing of current teachers:

We are going to measure [teacher] competencies in the schools that are clearly failing. But we have lots of ways to measure our teachers....

In the first three years, we require them to be regularly monitored. We require an extensive portfolio of their work and their children's work. And we're developing other ways to measure them to make sure that they are good teachers before they get their permanent license.... Every five years we require them to renew their certificate to keep their license. That used to involve simply getting some college credits. Now we're going to require a rigorous process in which they have to also prove that they are still a good teacher. We are still developing what that will be. I would imagine that would involve portfolios.

On the contribution individuals can make to improve teacher quality:

Well, I think they ought to, first of all, talk to their local principals, their superintendents, their school board to push them to make recruiting and keeping excellent teachers their No. 1 strategy for improving their schools and for schools to have public support. And public-school people should especially be at the forefront of this effort. We cannot have excellent public schools and expect the taxpayers to support them unless we have excellent teachers in them.

Number two, we should insist that teachers be regularly evaluated. We can push on that at the local level and push our state legislatures to require that by law.... And, number three, we ought to push for higher salaries for them, especially higher salaries that are tied to their accomplishments and the proof that they're outstanding.

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