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Friday Guest Column: Don’t Rob “Poor” Peter to Pay “Poor” Paul

June 13, 2008 2 min read

Howard Nelson is a senior researcher at the American Federation of Teachers

Redistributing resources from low-poverty schools to high-poverty schools through the reform of Title I’s comparability requirement should contribute to an important national priority: narrowing the achievement gap. This “reform” was suggested by the Aspen Institute report on NCLB, included in the House discussion draft for NCLB reform and the subject of an all-day meeting at the Washington DC think tank Center for American Progress.

Anyone who is seriously interested in this reform idea should read Phyllis McClure’s history of the Title I comparability provision to understand its rationale and assess its potential as a policy lever. As it stands now, school districts are required to distribute state and local resources equally between Title I and non-Title I schools, but they do not have to ensure that average teacher salaries are the same. This is the “loophole” that allegedly “Hurts Poor Children,” the subtitle of the volume containing the papers present at the CAP conference. The hope is that senior teachers, or their higher salaries, can be shifted to high-poverty schools.Applying Common Sense to the Comparability Issue

Teacher salaries vary more across districts than within districts. According to a Title I evaluation, teachers in Title I schools in high-wealth districts had average salaries $12,500 more in the low-wealth districts--where the non-Title I schools had average salaries only $3,000 more than in the Title I schools. Changes to compa-rability would do nothing to rectify salary inequalities among high- and low-wealth districts.

Redistributing resources within poor school districts will also have limited impact on the achievement gap because most schools are poor. For example, a school could be 82 percent poor and be in the low-poverty quartile in Chicago. (In the Chicago suburbs, a school with 35 percent poverty would be in the high-poverty quartile).

In fact, in a high-poverty urban school district, most of the schools with above-average salaries are poor schools and these high-poverty schools would lose experienced teachers or funds under some forms of comparability reforms. Each dot in the chart below represents a school in Oakland, California. The dots are bunched to the right because Oakland is a high-poverty school district and several dozen of the schools have above-average salaries. (Oakland is typical of the 12 cities in the Education Trust-West database.)

Although the correlation between poverty and school average salaries persists, the inequities within poor school districts are greatly exaggerated as suggested in this chart (derived from the Education Trust West’s on-line database).

After the nation’s experience with NCLB, the unintended consequences of well-intentioned reforms now get a lot of attention. Kate Walsh, NCTQ president and a presenter at the CAP meeting, argued that dis-trict pressure to transfer teachers involuntarily would exacerbate teacher turnover in low-income schools and possibly further curtail the teacher-hiring pool for such schools. She argued that the federal government, rather than the principal, could become the deter-minant of who gets hired.

An effort to improve staffing in low-income schools need to be surgical—searching school by school to identify schools with poorly credentialed teacher that are “hurting children”-—rather than using poverty counts and teacher-salary calculations,.

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