Increasing the Odds

The reasons good teachers avoid tough schools are many. Simple solutions seldom suffice.

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For Carol Tureski, the journey from enthusiasm to disillusionment took seven years.

When she first started teaching at a New York City high school, she was thrilled just to have a class of her own and to be working in a high-need community where she felt she could make a difference. "I was on fire," says Tureski, a graduate of prestigious Teachers College, Columbia University.

But even as she grew more confident in her own abilities, the language arts teacher found it harder to ignore the world outside her classroom. Students would bang on her door and run away, or they'd pull the fire alarm as a prank. Meetings of the parents' group rarely drew 20 participants into a building that served 2,000 students. And although she says some great teachers were there, the size of the school made it a hard place for staff members to nurture a sense of community.

"I finally left because I wasn't feeling successful," says Tureski, 40, who transferred to another urban school despite her principal's pleadings. "I would listen to myself talk to friends and family about school, and all I heard was myself being resigned to the fact that things weren't getting better."

That is what policymakers are up against as they try to close the "teacher gap." On the surface, it seems a classic Catch-22: Effective teachers have reason to be wary of tough schools, and yet tough schools are the ones that need them the most. Says Carol Ascher, an anthropologist at New York University who has studied the issue: "From a teacher's point of view, it makes every sense in the world to move out of a school like that."

But some high-need schools can attract--and hold on to--highly qualified teachers, suggesting that the problem can be overcome. Tureski's new school serves as challenging a population as her old one, and yet she says student discipline is less of an issue, and administrators and staff members are able to work as a team. A big help, she adds, is the school's size: just 400 students.

States and school districts are finding that they can give needy students a better shot at being taught by an excellent teacher. True, that work has often been a learning experience. Many are realizing that getting high-caliber recruits into the right schools is one matter; fostering the conditions so they can thrive there is another. But together, those efforts may reveal the right mix of incentives.

No Magic Number

Many policymakers see money as part of the equation. In recent years, districts have sought to lure teachers to difficult schools with a range of financial incentives--from bonuses and college scholarships to mortgage-assistance programs. Teachers themselves support the idea. A national poll of teachers by Public Agenda two years ago found that 84 percent approved of paying more to their peers in schools serving large numbers of students who were academically at risk.

Monetary rewards can bring more teachers to a district's doorstep. Recruiters from poor districts in Mississippi credit a loan-forgiveness program launched in the state four years ago with giving them a more competitive edge in the market for new teachers. The venture--part of a broader initiative to tackle teacher-recruitment problems in the state--pays off a year's worth of college tuition for every year a new teacher works in one of 42 districts with severe teacher shortages.

"When you attend a recruitment effort, one of the first questions they ask is, ‘Are you a critical-need district?'" says Janet Collins, the personnel director for the 7,000-student Greenville public schools in the Mississippi Delta region.

Higher pay is another magnet, as seen with New York City's new teachers' contract. The agreement brokered last summer hiked starting salaries from $31,910 to $39,000, while also dramatically increasing the wages of veterans transferring into the system. It seems to have helped: Of the 8,500 teachers hired by the district for the 2002-03 school year, 97 percent were fully licensed. In the year before the raises, only about half the new hires held the state credentials.

And yet, the power of the almighty dollar has its limits. Even the most generous financial incentives have sometimes fallen short of providing enough first-rate instructors for needy students. Consider:

  • Last summer, the 162,000-student Palm Beach County, Fla., schools offered $10,000 bonuses to teachers who had demonstrated their ability to raise student-test scores and agreed to work in one of the system's lowest-performing schools. While 17 stipends were offered to highly effective teachers already in the struggling schools, a total of 131 invitations were sent out in the hope of attracting others to transfer. In the end, just 10 agreed to switch schools.
  • Palm Beach district officials point out that the offers went out two weeks before the start of school, giving little time for teachers to make such a major decision. But Shelley Vana, the president of the Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association, says other factors played a role in the low acceptance rate. One, she says, is the stigma of working in a building given a rating of F or D under Florida's school accountability system.
    "Being at a school that's labeled an F is a very big risk for your career," she says.
  • California pays $20,000 over four years to teachers certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards who work in schools whose performance puts them in the lower half of the state's 10-point rating system. While half the teachers in the state who have been thus recognized are in such schools, more than 90 percent of them teach in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The 737,000-student district offers its own 15 percent salary increase for board-certified teachers and gives teachers extensive guidance and technical support as they go through the certification process.
  • Even within the Los Angeles system, the concentration of board-certified teachers varies considerably, according to Adrienne Mack-Kirschner, who used to work with LAUSD teachers seeking certification and now does the same for educators throughout Los Angeles County. She knows of two regions within the Los Angeles Unified district that serve similar numbers of students, and yet one has 100 teachers who have earned the recognition and the other has just 11.
    "If you're a teacher in a very low-performing school in the central city," Mack-Kirschner says, "the odds of hearing about and of succeeding [in becoming certified] are extremely reduced."
  • A highly selective program in Massachusetts that had offered candidates an accelerated training course in teaching and a $20,000 signing bonus over four years had seen fewer than half its participants go on to high-need districts in the past two years. Though state officials point out that participants aren't required to work in such systems, the initiative targets recruits "strongly committed" to working in "high-need urban schools and communities."

A critical lesson from such experiences, say many experts, is that financial compensation may be part of the mix, but it's not the only ingredient. "No kind of bonus is going to make the difference in an environment where you feel you don't have the opportunity to be successful," says Elizabeth L. Useem, a researcher with the Philadelphia Education Fund, a nonprofit group that works to upgrade that city's schools.

The Right Set of Tools

One way to increase the odds that teachers will be successful is to give them the right training. A common complaint is that teacher education programs haven't done enough to steep candidates in the realities of working with students who have social and economic disadvantages.

"I think we probably lose those wonderfully brilliant teachers who could make a big impact, because society is changing faster than teacher-preparation programs can prepare people for that," says Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, a 44-year-old teacher at a high-poverty elementary school in Virginia Beach, Va.

Some teacher-preparation programs are retooling. Seven years ago, the education school at the University of California, Los Angeles, underwent a radical transformation from what had been, says UCLA education professor Jeannie Oakes, "a feeder, for the most part, for more affluent, suburban white schools."

UCLA's new master’s program has teaching candidates spend considerable time in the low-income communities of Los Angeles. They carry out research on inner-city neighborhoods and learn how to make home visits to children's families. Moreover, all are required to sign their first teaching contracts with the Los Angeles school system, and during the first year, they continue to be mentored through the UCLA program.

"When we started this program, people said, 'You're nuts; you're not going to get anyone to come,' " Oakes says. "We still have two applications for each position, and with more than double the number [of positions] we had six years ago."

As with the UCLA program, many school districts are learning the importance of continued training and support once new teachers are in the classroom. Louisiana's Lafourche Parish public schools, a rural system serving 15,000 students, had been losing half its new teachers each year until it established an induction program in 1996. Now, the attrition rate is 11 percent.

Lafourche Parish begins its program just before the start of the school year with four days of training focused on classroom management. Each recruit is then assigned a master teacher in the same building who provides advice on everything from how to handle parent conferences to how to prepare for job reviews. Novices also can ask questions and get advice at monthly meetings held just for new teachers.

"I had my mentor's phone number memorized by the end of the first week," says Angie Chatagnier, a 23-yearold kindergarten teacher who remarks that the induction program was "a major selling point" when she was deciding which district to work in.

Such programs are proving even more critical as more people opt against traditional preparation programs in favor of alternative routes that put them in their first teaching jobs before they've had much, if any, training in how to teach.

Officials in Massachusetts suspect that lack of support is partly the reason why the state's $20,000 signing-bonus program--which drew national publicity when it was announced in 1998--has seen an attrition rate as high as 30 percent some years for participants who took jobs in needy districts. In recent surveys of those who have gone through the program's fast-track-training component, 41 percent either said they didn't have any mentoring or rated their mentoring as poor. And only 10 percent of their principals said they gave recruits who came through the program additional support that other new teachers wouldn't normally get.

Orin Gutlerner, who oversees the initiative for the Massachusetts education department, says attrition rates have dropped as the agency has shored up its support system, including 18 hours of seminars during the school year that bring the new teachers back together with those they trained with over the summer.

Late last year, the department changed the program to target the signing bonuses toward nontraditional candidates in innovative teacher-training programs run by universities. The summer training program continues, but without the financial incentive.

Experts agree that raising teacher quality depends as much on how educators are trained and supported as on who goes into the profession.

"I think we've got to kind of get away from this business of 'Let's get rid of the bad guys and bring in the good guys,'" says Harvey Hunt, a co-director of the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, in Santa Cruz, Calif. Alternatively trained teachers "are all well-meaning, but lacking in real preparation and support."

Working Conditions

Although states can play a role, districts bear the greatest burden for fostering the conditions in which teachers feel they can be effective. To do so, some local administrators offer this rule of thumb: Ask teachers what it is they need. "They know what all the day-to-day issues are," says David Fairall, the human-resources director for the combined Winston-Salem/Forsyth County public schools in North Carolina. "They know much better than central office or the school board does how a particular initiative is going to be received."

That's what his 46,000-student district did a few years ago to find a way to improve teacher quality and staff stability at its 21 "equity plus" elementary schools. (The designation is used by many North Carolina systems to identify schools serving the most academically at-risk students.) At meetings with a planning committee of teachers, Fairall found far more interest in smaller class sizes than in higher pay.

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County did introduce a nominal, annual stipend that amounts to several hundred dollars for most teachers at equity-plus schools. But it also limited class size in grades K-3 to 18 and in grades 3-5 to 20, compared with 24 and 26, respectively, in the rest of the system. In the three years since the changes went into effect, the average years of teachers' experience has increased at 70 percent of the equity-plus schools, compared with 38 percent in the rest of the system.

North Carolina's largest district has gone a few steps further. Four years ago, officials in the 112,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg system compared the staff makeup at some of its best- and worst-performing schools, and put together a package of incentives aimed at getting the latter to look more like the former.

Stipends of $2,500 were offered to licensed educators in the district's equity-plus schools who had at least four years' experience, a master's degree, and proven ability to raise student performance. At the same time, though, the system gave those schools funding for additional staff members, and it guaranteed their teachers 30 percent more money for instructional supplies than their peers in the rest of the district received.

"Incentives are critical, but purely doing financial incentives is never going to be enough," says Barbara Jenkins, the human-resources director in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. "There has to be something done around working conditions."

After less than two years, four of six teacher-qualification characteristics that Charlotte-Mecklenburg administrators are tracking at the high-need schools have improved. For instance, 14 equity-plus schools had the same percentage of fully licensed staff members last year as the system's highest-achieving schools; that's up from 10 the year before.

Despite the gains, school board Chairman Arthur Griffin Jr. says more forceful steps may be warranted if more progress isn't made soon: "We either do it through incentives voluntarily, or we do what is moral and right, and we assign teachers where they are needed."

In part, the problem is that much of what good teachers value is intangible. While it's relatively easy to tinker with such features as class size, salaries, and funding, it's harder to get a handle on how a school is managed and how well its staff members work together. But those factors play a huge role in teachers' career decisions.

Just ask Rose Vilchez, a 32-year-old educator from Southern California. The nationally certified teacher left a low-performing school two years ago, forfeiting the chance to earn the $20,000 bonus the state pays board-certified teachers in such schools.

She still wanted to work with disadvantaged students, she says, but saw her school as falling short of its potential. Vilchez maintains that teachers were sometimes not assigned to teach the grade levels they were best at. And staff-development meetings felt superficial to her; they were more focused, she says, on swapping lesson plans than on talk of what made for excellent instruction.

"If you want to entice me to a low-performing school," says Vilchez, who went to a higher-performing school and now is beginning full-time work toward a doctorate, "then give me a strong administration, promise me staff that are going to work collegially, and a clean school, and an environment that we can all buy in to, from the principal to the custodian."

One way that some districts are seeking to change their schools' culture is through site-based hiring, which allows administrators and other staff members at each school to choose new teachers. The long-standing alternative has been automatically to give an open spot to the most senior eligible teacher who asks to transfer to the school, a practice that doesn't ensure a staff of like-minded people, critics say.

Decentralizing personnel decisions in that way usually means changing the local teachers' contract. But many unions have been resistant, and even where seniority provisions have been scaled back, change can be slow. District and union leaders in Philadelphia two years ago approved a plan to allow site-based hiring at any school where two-thirds of the teachers approved of the idea. Since then, 29 of 263 buildings have gone that route.

In Seattle, site-based hiring is just one part of a larger effort by district leaders to encourage a distinctive environment at each school. Not only has the system virtually eliminated the role seniority used to play in building-to-building transfers, but its innovative "weighted" funding scheme also gives schools more money if they serve large numbers of students living in poverty. That means more dollars for everything from personnel to supplies.

Seattle Superintendent Joseph Olchefske says he also regularly moves his most capable principals from what he calls his "shallow water" schools--those serving few high-need children--to "deep water" ones.

"A teacher can then make a legitimate choice," he says, "between going to a high-need school with a great principal, a fine building, and a class size of 20, or to an upper-income neighborhood with a rookie principal, a school that's seen better days, and class sizes of 25 or 27."

‘Multiple Approaches’

Seattle's Olchefske isn't alone in believing that a strong school leader is essential for building a strong teaching staff. Useem, of the Philadelphia Education Fund, has studied administrators at high-need schools who are managing to hold on to high-caliber staff members. Among the common traits, she's found that such administrators: take an active role in teacher recruitment, rather than leaving it to the central office; back up teachers on disciplinary issues; delegate authority; and make accommodations for teachers' personal and family emergencies.

It's not surprising, then, that school-turnaround efforts in a growing number of districts involve changes in school-level leadership. Last year, for instance, when the Baltimore district named 10 failing schools in need of an overhaul, each got a new principal. In addition, teacher salaries were hiked at the schools by extending the length of the workday, and the schools were reconstituted, meaning that all staff members had to reapply for their jobs.

Following the changes, the proportion of fully licensed teachers in the schools tripled, from 25 percent to 75 percent. Says Baltimore schools chief Carmen Russo: "You have to have multiple approaches to this."

Indeed, among those searching for a solution to the teacher-quality gap, perhaps the greatest consensus is that no single way is enough. No incentive by itself has proved capable of dramatically changing the course of a culture that has long channeled many of the most qualified teachers to the best-performing schools.

Improved training alone won't do it, many experts say. Neither will more payor better working conditions, nor even stronger school leadership.

"You've got to do all those things to have a fighting chance at this very hard work," says Dan Challener, the president of the Public Education Foundation in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Leaders in Chattanooga are pulling out the stops to see if that can be done. A group of philanthropies, the mayor, and the 41,000-student Hamilton County public schools have teamed up to give the system's best educators a host of new reasons to teach at one of nine urban elementary schools that have been among the city's worst-performing.

The makeover began two years ago, when Chattanooga's Benwood Foundation pledged $5 million to improve literacy instruction. The money paid for staff training and let each participating school hire a full-time consulting teacher to work with classroom educators on improving their instruction. All nine schools were reconstituted last year, with 46 out of a total of 270 teachers replaced. Four of the sites have new principals.

At the same time, among the many new incentives offered, teachers can now get low-interest mortgages and $10,000 toward buying a home in the city if they teach in one of the schools for five years. Working at one of them for two years also will make teachers eligible for a new, tuition-free master's program focused on serving academically at-risk students. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore are designing the program.

Another bonus of $5,000 a year goes to teachers whose students have shown improved performance--if those teachers stay in, or move to, one of the nine buildings. Predicts Ken Jordan, an aide to Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker: "Within the next couple of years, these will be the most prestigious schools in the system."

The changes have already convinced Rebecca Malone. The 4th grade teacher transferred this academic year to one of those schools after having taught for 11 years at a high-performing magnet school in the district. Her past success in raising student performance makes her eligible for the new $5,000 bonus. In all, 12 of the stipends were awarded this year, although Malone was just one of two who hadn't already been teaching in one of the nine schools.

Still, she says, the money wasn't what motivated her. She knows she could easily increase her earnings by more than $5,000 by moving to nearby Georgia, which has siphoned many teachers from the area. And no amount of money, she adds, would have drawn her to a school if she hadn't heard good reports about the staff and the principal. "This was a chance for me to grow professionally and to help children learn," she says.

Chattanooga officials have their fingers crossed that others will soon follow in her footsteps. The good news is that state test results show the nine schools last year made twice the average gains as the rest of the district--a sign that the early changes may be paying off.

And if success really does breed success, that improvement may be the most powerful incentive.

Vol. 22, Issue 17, Page 52, 54-56

Published in Print: January 9, 2003, as Increasing the Odds
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