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Published in Print: May 19, 2004, as Governors Study Teacher Quality

Governors Study Teacher Quality

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State leaders know they must lure the best teachers to the schools with the lowest test scores in order to spur major gains in student achievement.

Gov. Mark Warner

And while they have lots of ideas on how to do that, they aren’t sure which ideas are going to work, according to participants in a one-day seminar here last week.

"This question ... is something that I’m not sure any of us has found the silver bullet on," Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia told the audience of researchers and state and local officials convened by the Washington-based National Governors Association.

But Mr. Warner and others suggested ideas that could induce good teachers to work in the hardest conditions. Those tactics include:

  • Giving bonuses or accelerated pension benefits to effective teachers who transfer to low-achieving schools, which tend to enroll high numbers of poor and minority students;
  • Providing mentoring programs for new teachers in those schools to ensure they have the skills to succeed and will eventually want to stay;
  • Changing hiring policies and budgeting procedures in urban districts to offer prospective teachers jobs before candidates are enticed to suburban districts that make decisions faster; and
  • Transferring principals with a history of raising student achievement to schools that need to improve.

Policymakers, however, will probably need to try all of those strategies—and a few others—before they eventually succeed, participants said.

Even ideas that economic theory suggests would be successful sometimes don’t work.

In South Carolina, expert teachers are offered $20,000 a year extra to advise their colleagues in struggling schools on how to improve student learning. So far, the state hasn’t had many takers.

"We have had a hard time recruiting the teachers" to do the job, said Janice Poda, the senior director of the division of teaching quality at the South Carolina Department of Education.

Federal Focus

States are paying more attention to teacher quality as they try to carry out the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. If low-performing schools don’t make annual progress toward achievement goals, districts are required to intervene with services such as tutoring and extended learning opportunities.

With the right teachers, those services might not be necessary, policymakers hope.

Gov. Warner highlighted a new project to put "turnaround specialists" in place as principals in the Virginia’s lowest-scoring schools. ("Va. Principal Cadre Aims to Fix Schools," April 28, 2004.)

But the state is also taking other steps, he added, to provide mentors, reform teacher preparation, and improve working conditions at low-performing schools.

Such measures, if done well, could result in improvements to the teaching ranks at the neediest schools, experts at the meeting said.

Of the teachers who participated in a mentoring project at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for instance, 94 percent are still working in schools seven years later, according to Ellen Moir, the director of teacher education at the university.

New teachers take part in the program for two years, at an annual cost of $6,000 per teacher, she said.

While the expense is cost-effective because it frees districts from having to recruit so many new teachers, Mr. Warner said that Virginia’s fiscal difficulties have forced it to opt for a cheaper mentoring program.

Meeting Deadlines

Other solutions are simple and require no extra money, such as passing state budgets on time.

If a state’s spending plan is delayed, school officials don’t know whether they’ll have the money they need to pay for teaching positions they’d like to fill, according to Kaya Henderson, the vice president for strategic projects at the New Teacher Project.

That delay can cost administrators the chance to hire the best teachers in the job market, she said, highlighting that and other findings from her group’s study of why urban districts struggle to find teachers.

The New York City-based nonprofit group also found that states cause problems by setting late dates by which teachers and other state employees must sign contracts for the next 12 months. In some states, that date is as late as Aug. 15, she said.

"That might work for firemen or policemen or whoever else," Ms. Henderson said, "but that doesn’t fit the school calendar."

Vol. 23, Issue 37, Page 24

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