Education Opinion

One Urban District with a Bad Habit

By Anthony Cody — February 16, 2009 5 min read
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Oakland is addicted to low-cost beginning teachers.

Ten years ago, the Oakland schools had a big problem. Every summer 400 teaching positions would open up, but only one hundred teachers would be found who were willing to accept jobs in Oakland at the salary offered. When fall came, 300 teaching positions (out of 2,500) would be left unfilled. The new Superintendent Dennis Chaconas thought he had an answer. Raise teacher pay in Oakland by 20%, moving us from way below average to a bit above average for the region. It worked! Over the next two years, fewer teachers left, and more teachers applied, so the District was well-staffed.

But there was a problem with this solution. When teachers stayed, they moved up the salary scale. The average salary for teachers went up even more than the 20% raise, and before long, the District was bankrupt, and forced to borrow money from the State of California, which came along with a state-appointed administrator to make sure we lived within our means. So teachers had to give back 4% of our raise. Oakland teacher pay, adjusted for inflation, has actually dropped by another 10% since 2004. The average teacher salary now in Oakland is $17,000 less than in neighboring San Leandro - due to a combination of lower average number years teaching, and a lower salary schedule overall. [note: since I wrote this, it has come to my attention that San Leandro teacher salaries do not include health benefits -- thus their pay is artificially high compared to Oakland. The average Oakland pay remains $6,000 lower than the next lowest Bay Area district, however.]

So Oakland has managed to balance its budget by dramatically lowering average teacher pay. But what about the 300 classrooms that were empty a decade ago? Not to worry. They are filled by interns from several different programs. These interns take a six week crash course in the summer, and then are placed in charge of their own classroom in September. All in all, the District employs approximately 250 interns in their first or second year. Unfortunately 75% of the new “alternatively credentialed” teachers hired have left the District three years later.

The level of turnover is especially high in areas like special education, math and science. About half of our middle school science teachers and a third of our high school science teachers are in their first three years. Turnover is also greater at schools with the highest rates of poverty.

A closer look at where new teachers are concentrated reveals some systemic inequities. In the state of California, the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning reports that 9% of the teachers at low-performing schools are under-prepared, while only 2% are underprepared at high performing schools. Taking a closer look in Oakland, we find that in all of the five top performing elementary schools there is only one intern teacher -- less than 1%, while at the lowest performing five, there are a total of ten such teachers -- 17% of the total number.

There is nothing inherently wrong with an intern. Most of them arrive with a high degree of enthusiasm and motivation, and actively engage with their colleagues. But there is a big difference between a new teacher and one with five or ten years of experience. Most veteran teachers have mastered classroom management, and have a range of instructional strategies to draw upon. I am currently helping to lead a project which has a team of experienced science teachers devoted to supporting novices. We are working to share curriculum resources and ways of teaching we have found work with our students in Oakland. However we face several challenges. The sheer number of new teachers means we do not have enough experienced mentors to serve them all. In addition, the low salaries mean it is hard to retain our experienced leaders. The top salary in Oakland is just under $71,000 a year, while teachers in San Leandro next door top out at over $91,000. It is little wonder that we lose teachers after a few years.

When we think about what is needed to turn a struggling school around, most of it comes down to a dedicated team of educators pulling together to build a solid program. It means teachers and administrators reaching out to parents and students, involving them in making the school a hub of learning activities. It means teachers collaborating on common assessments, sharing effective practices, and learning together how to meet the needs of their students.

Unfortunately, with the level of turnover we are experiencing among our science teachers, and at many of our high needs schools, we do not get to these levels of work. We are working at a much more basic level - the rudiments of classroom management, or sharing lesson plans with teachers who have never taught about density or chemical reactions before. This is valuable and essential work, given the level of inexperience we are coping with. But we are stuck at this level, and with many of our experienced teachers leaving, and a constant churn of newcomers, it is hard to see how we will move to the level of professional work we need to in order to dramatically improve student outcomes in our community.

To bring average Oakland salaries up to the middle range for the region will cost about $11,000 per teacher - about $25 million a year. Unfortunately the latest cuts proposed by the governor take $28 million away from the District’s budget of about $650 million. However, the stimulus bill from Washington may restore some of this funding, and local leaders are discussing placing some sort of revenue measure on the ballot, so there may be some new funding available to make some changes.

For Oakland to turn our schools around, we must stabilize our teaching force.
We must invest in competitive teacher salaries to curtail this calamitous turnover, and end our addiction to low-cost beginning teachers. Our students deserve the best schools, staffed with a solid mix of teachers at different levels of experience. Our teachers deserve the pay that will build and sustain such schools. This is one bad habit it is time to break.

Does teacher turnover stymie school improvement in your District? How do the challenges in Oakland compare to those in your area?

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