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Education Opinion

Steps Toward Closing the Opportunity Gap

By Guest Blogger — May 13, 2014 5 min read
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Note: Members from Educators For Excellence (E4E) are guest posting this week. Today’s post is from Darby Masland, a ninth grade global history teacher in Brooklyn. Darby is an Educators For Excellence member and a member of the E4E policy team on contracts.

It has long been recognized that low-income students of color generally receive less effective teachers. But perhaps this problem has never been stated as starkly as in a recent paper examining the distribution of teacher quality in Washington state: “We demonstrate that in elementary, middle school, and high school classrooms (both math and reading), every measure of teacher quality--experience, licensure exam score, and value-added estimates of effectiveness--is inequitably distributed across every indicator of student disadvantage--free/reduced lunch status, underrepresented minority, and low prior academic performance.” This status quo is unacceptable, and it pervades our country, from the west coast to the high school in Brooklyn where I teach. Our ability to close the teaching quality gap is one of the most important steps towards closing the opportunity gap for low-income students of color.

In New York City, where schools are severely segregated, there is little question that the highest-poverty schools receive the least experienced and least effective teachers. Attrition from these schools is devastating. One study found that a breathtaking 60% of middle school and 40% of elementary school teachers in low-performing NYC schools left their schools within two years. Just as disturbingly, the same study reported that the most effective teachers were the most likely to transfer to other, higher-performing schools in New York City. This data is particularly sobering considering the harmful effects that attrition has on student achievement.

This is not to say that schools should aim for zero attrition. After all, some teachers realize that the profession is not for them. But the bigger issue is the large number of teachers who leave the classroom because they are not afforded the professional, financial, and even emotional support that would enable them to stay and succeed. Working in a high-needs school often means that you are not only a teacher, but also a guidance counselor, social worker, financial advisor, confidante, and mentor. It’s not surprising, then, that doing six jobs at once is not sustainable.

New York City is failing students and failing teachers through its inability to create working conditions and compensation that attract and retain excellent educators in the schools where they’re most needed. Luckily, Mayor de Blasio recognizes this problem, and the recently agreed-upon New York City teachers’ contract takes an important step in the right direction on this crucial issue.

Under the current New York City teacher salary schedule there is no distinction made among different schools: educators are paid the same regardless of the needs and demands of the school in which we work. As anyone who has taught in a high-poverty, hard-to-staff school can attest, the work is equally rewarding but often much more taxing. The only compensation differential that the pay scale makes room for is based on years of experience and degree(s) held or academic credits accumulated.

I recently served as a member of an E4E Teacher Policy Team on teachers’ contracts, which recommended that teachers in high-needs schools receive additional compensation. We were thrilled that a $5,000 differential was included in the new contract; this pay will go to teachers - except those rated ‘ineffective’ - at a selection of hard-to-staff schools across the city.

Paying more for more challenging work is standard across a number of fields, and the evidence suggests that doing so can have positive effects in education as well. In North Carolina, for example, a program that paid a relatively modest supplement of $2,400 (inflation adjusted) to teachers of math, science, and special education in high-poverty schools resulted in significant decreases in teacher attrition. A similar reform in Denver appeared to produce positive results in retention of teachers in hard-to-staff schools. We need to expand programs like these in order to reach students in high-needs schools all across America, not just in urban centers.

The proposed UFT contract also includes a new career ladder - something for which E4E teachers have long advocated - which allows top teachers to take on additional responsibilities such as modeling lessons, leading professional development, or exchanging best practices across schools. Yet these leadership positions do not go far enough. As our colleagues in E4E - Los Angeles recently proposed, there should be a comprehensive career ladder that starts with an “emerging teacher” position, which should come with a lighter class load, extra support, targeted professional development, and quality mentorship.

Unfortunately, across America, new teachers are still introduced to the profession with a “sink or swim” mantra going into their first year teaching. And as the attrition data show, many are sinking. In New York City, we need to build on the ideas in the new contract that support teacher retention and professionalism to help new teachers succeed and stay in the profession by creating a comprehensive career ladder for educators.

Finally, schools that work with historically disadvantaged populations need to provide better support to their students, which will in turn help teachers do what we do best: teach. I have been lucky to work in a school that partners with organizations that provide these vital services - in each grade, we have a social worker, sex education program, and financial literacy class. Being able to look to these experts for support in conversations with my students has allowed me to focus my energies on creating an engaging academic curriculum. If all schools adopted a wrap-around services model, teachers would be better able to focus on academics.

In sum we must do more, and we must do it better. All students deserve a high-quality education, and unfortunately they’re not always getting one. Schools and teachers can’t do everything for out students, but right now we’re not doing everything we can - not yet at least.

--Darby Masland

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.