Finley: How business leaders can help schools

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Of all of the big ideas for improving the sorry state of education in Michigan, the one that holds the most promise is finding the smartest and most dedicated people to stand at the front of classrooms.

Great schools start with great teachers. If a school has a mediocre faculty, it’ll turn out mediocre students, no matter how much accountability, testing, curriculum changes and other structural reforms are imposed.

Great teachers, though, are getting harder to find, and to keep. The profession is out of favor with college students, who are chasing degrees they believe will bring them more money and a more glamorous work life.

While in previous generations, teaching, along with nursing, offered opportunities for women who were shut out of other professions, today they have the full range of options, and fewer are choosing teaching.

Graduates who do go into the field stay an average of only five years, finding the stress of melding a classroom of over-indulged and hyper-stimulated children into scholars not worth the aggravation.

In Michigan, the pay isn’t bad. But it also isn’t competitive in a full-employment economy that is starving for educated workers. Summers off aren’t enough of a draw to lure the best and brightest when private industry is waving fatter paychecks.

The result is a shortage of truly talented teachers, the sort who can make a difference in the performance of a classroom, and perhaps an entire school.

Detroit will end this school year with roughly 200 fewer teachers than it needs to fill all of its classrooms. Shortages of that magnitude don’t lend themselves to a choosy selection process — particularly since Detroit is competing with suburban districts that pay more and offer better working conditions.

This is a challenge Detroit’s business community could help meet. Business leaders have been pouring money into Detroit’s public schools for decades to fund initiatives that have mostly failed.

And yet they still seem eager to help. So ask them to create a teacher recruitment and retention fund aimed at attracting the best classroom talent to Detroit.

The fund could be used to award signing bonuses to hot-shot education school graduates, or to tempt high performing, experienced teachers from other districts.

It also could serve as a bonus pool to reward exceptional teachers and provide them with an incentive to stick around.

A federal government study released in January found students in school districts that gave across-the-board bonuses to teachers underperformed districts that gave merit-based bonuses. The difference was small, but so were the checks.

Making the bonuses large enough to truly impact teacher pay should produce more significant results.

The money shouldn’t be turned over to the district for subjective distribution. There should be clear benchmarks a teacher must hit before getting the payout, and outside oversight to guard against abuse.

The school district could never divert enough money from its own budget to build a meaningful bonus pool. But with business, foundation and philanthropic help, it should be possible to put together an incentive fund that would allow Detroit to place the very best teachers in front of its children.

Catch “The Nolan Finley Show” weekdays 7-9 a.m. on 910 AM Superstation.