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OPPORTUNITY AT THE TOP: New Report Finds that Concentrated Efforts to Retain and Expand the Reach of the Nation’s Top Teachers Could Vastly Improve Education

A new report from Public Impact, a national education policy and management consulting firm based in Chapel Hill, NC, finds that current reform efforts in the areas of teacher improvement are not enough to significantly improve the education for the majority of American children. The report, Opportunity at the Top: How America’s Best Teachers Could Close the Gaps, Raise the Bar, and Keep Our Nation Great, finds that one overlooked resource could raise the education bar, close achievement gaps, and improve the nation as a whole: the top 25 percent of U.S. teachers.

According to the report, the country’s top performing teachers, which include more than 800,000 professionals, are in a position to help all students exceed current academic standards and graduate from high school ready for college and careers. It cites major research, which reveals that the disparity in educational performance between student groups such as high-income and low-income students could be closed in just five years if lagging children gained access to today’s top teachers.

The report acknowledges that two challenges stand in the way. The first challenge is retaining the nation’s best teachers. Currently, about 8 percent of the best teachers leave the profession every year. That outflow translates into of a loss of about 64,000 teachers every year.

To better retain the nation’s best teachers, Opportunity at the Top calls for teacher evaluation systems that differentiate between teachers based on performance. It notes that current evaluation systems make it possible for both the best-performing teacher and the worst-performing teacher in a single school to receive a rating of “satisfactory” or higher. Additionally, the report finds that teacher rewards and benefits rarely take into account a teacher’s job performance and ability to help students progress academically throughout the school year. According to the report, less than one penny out of every dollar of teacher compensation is based on performance or on any other factor other than experience or advanced degrees. Instead, teacher compensation systems are designed to mainly reward teachers to stay in the classroom and accumulate experience. As a result, great teachers are generally compensated at the same level as poor teachers. To correct this system, the report authors suggest building an “opportunity culture” that provides teachers with plenty of avenues by which they may gain personal achievement, make impacts on children, and earn increased pay in proportion to their contributions to student learning.

The second challenge identified in the report is a school system that is ill-equipped to fully leverage the top-performing teachers’ talents. The report finds that even if a highly effective elementary teacher stays on the job for thirty years, her instruction will only reach six hundred students over the same period. It identifies several hurdles to expanding excellent teachers’ reach, including state legislation that places a limit on the number of students per classroom, compensation systems that do not reward teachers who are reaching more students, funding systems that allocate resources in the form of staff positions rather than in the form of dollars, and limits on teaching across state lines. Due to these limitations, the vast majority of great teachers reach the same number of students as their less effective peers.

Opportunity at the Top has several recommendations for retaining high performing teachers and expanding their reach, including aggressively recruiting more high performers to the teaching profession; tripling dismissals of the least effective teachers; cutting the turnover rate among the top teachers in half; and boosting top performing teachers’ reach by:

  • Changing instructional roles and how schools are organized to maximize the best teachers’ talents;
  • Using technology to enable great teachers to engage directly but not in person with students; and
  • Using video of great teachers and software based on their insights and practices to deliver great teaching to students.

To read the full report, visit

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