Henry Brooks Adams, historian and political biographer (and grandson of John Quincy Adams) had this to say about the indelible and enduring impact of teachers: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” Well said – and true of both our best and worst teachers. In recent years, a large body of evidence has accumulated validating Adams’s prescient observation – namely that teacher effectiveness is the single most important factor in predicting student achievement. Yet in spite of what we know to be true, our policies discourage the best teachers from going where they are needed most.

School districts are finally waking up to the reality of this problem. This week the Durham School Board had a long overdue “aha” moment, acknowledging that the district does little to motivate the best teachers to stay in Durham’s low-performing schools. Previous studies have suggested that this teaching inequity spans the country. Poor and minority children are left all-too-often to languish in failing schools with the most inexperienced and least-qualified instructors, and high teacher turnover to boot.

But why should the best, most experienced teachers slug it out in struggling schools? After all, under North Carolina’s ABCs accountability program, financial bonuses are meted out based on the school’s overall performance. This translates into financial remuneration for all teachers in high-performing schools, whether their teaching skills are good, bad, or mediocre. And good teachers in lower-achieving schools are passed over. Such a system defies common sense and virtually guarantees that effective teachers at low-performing schools will exit quickly, headed to schools where their skills will be rewarded.

What can we do to rectify the situation? For starters, we ought to offer good teachers financial incentives to teach at low-performing schools. Durham school board members acknowledge that this solution is the logical one, and will propose that the board look into offering incentives to teachers. Let’s hope they act quickly to remedy this imbalance.

But where will the added money come from for more balanced incentive programs? If the past is any indication, the education establishment will ask for new money, rather than redirecting money away from ineffective programs. But before allocating resources, education authorities in North Carolina ought to look at restructuring our state’s incentive program, rewarding individual teacher performance, rather than school achievement. And when it comes to evaluating teachers, we ought to look at more than if a student scores “at grade level.” In Tennessee, and in a few states around the country, teacher performance is evaluated based on “value-added teacher effectiveness data.” Under such a system, teachers are evaluated by the improvement that students make during the course of the year. This means that a teacher with a classroom full of struggling students who make significant gains will be rewarded, even if her students’ scores still fall short of grade-level proficiency.

But if we do, in fact, need more funding, we ought to look at the National Board Certification program. National Board Certification in North Carolina automatically translates into a 12 percent pay raise for teachers. This incentive is paid to teachers who obtain certification, but is not linked in any way to teaching effectiveness: evidence indicates that certified teachers do no better at producing high-performing students than non-certified teachers. Why not transfer these millions of dollars to a program that pays administrators and teachers more money for going to lower-performing schools, and still more dollars to teachers whose students demonstrate solid academic gains?

Clearly, teachers make a difference – to students from all walks of life. But for some children, especially those from poor, urban neighborhoods, a really good teacher can help bridge the racial and economic divide, pointing the way to a brighter future. It’s time our policies encouraged teachers to stand in the gap, offering all children a chance to succeed.