Equity & Diversity Opinion

Union-Led Reform Project in California Shares Lessons

By Anthony Cody — November 15, 2013 2 min read
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If you were to think of the key things that you would want to do to support learning at high poverty schools, what would be on your list? Leaders at the California Teachers Association asked that question six years ago, and came up with a program that provides extra funding to about 400 high poverty schools across the state.

There has been an ongoing research project to track how well the program has met its objectives, and a second report has been issued. (I wrote about the first report when it was issued in 2010.

The new report focuses on ten schools that have been exemplary in putting the QEIA funds to good use. The authors indicated several aspects of QEIA that were especially helpful. The first was reducing class size. The report indicates:

As a key pathway, CSR [class size reduction] opened the door to instructional opportunities that would not exist otherwise. Respondents commonly noted that CSR paved the way for the following changes in instruction: 1) More small group instruction; 2) Differentiated instruction; 3) Individual time with each student; 4) Instruction geared toward developing more complex skills; 5) Expanded time for re-teaching; and 6) Frequent and ongoing assessment.

Time for teacher collaboration was also of great value:

Collaboration served as a gateway to change in
every exemplary school; collaboration led to three promising activities: 1) Planning Together; 2) Aligning Instruction; and 3) Sharing Practice.

Schools also reported that it was of great value to focus on responding to student needs:

Many school stakeholders emphasized the significance of changing school structures to find more instructional time for student intervention. They adjusted master schedules to provide for larger blocks of core instructional time, grouped students according to learning needs for re-teaching, added lunch time and pullout interventions, extended school days, adopted Response to Intervention models, implemented formal ELA and Math intervention frameworks, provided for intensive tutoring, and created small learning communities to support freshman transition.

I have been following an elementary school in Oakland that has been a QEIA school, New Highland Academy. This school has been using QEIA funds to support their teacher inquiry process, as I described here.

I asked Aija Simmons, one of the lead teachers there to explain how QEIA has helped their school. Ms. Simmons was candid, and her answers reveal some of the complexities inherent in this work.

As with most other programs you can't really isolate and imply causality but you can just speak on some of the influential factors that QEIA has contributed to our school and those effects have indeed changed over time. I think one of my main benefits of QEIA that benefit our staff has been the protection of smaller class sizes thus far. The quality of instruction and differentiation is directly impacted by the number of students one teacher can serve. Having funding that protects those smaller ratios definitely impact the quality of attention and instruction each student will receive. I think another indirect impact that small class sizes has is on teacher enthusiasm and efficacy. A teacher knows the pressures of this job and how difficult it is to meet all students needs. Maxing out classes makes that job feel even more daunting. I believe having small class sizes also had some impact on our ability to move out of program improvement, but with that said I'm not sure if our students test scores are improving or flat lining at this point, but again many other factors contribute. One if the other things in QEIA language is that teachers have a voice in how QEIA money is spent. This meant that we were brought to the table in budgeting conversations as it related to QEIA and as we chose how the QEIA money would be spent it indirectly led to conversations about how other money could be spent that would be freed up by the impact of QEIA funds. This gives teachers more of a sense of ownership over what is happening at the school and what are budget priorities should be. Even so now as we fight for QEIA class size regulations to be maintain teachers are still demanding at or school and from the district office budget transparency. Because I have only worked at NHA in my career at the district I have no point of reference for comparison of teacher role in school budgeting priorities at non QEIA schools. Finally in my early years at Highland I remember having discussions about making sure our school would meet QEIA teacher retention/years of service regulations. It was a priority at our school that we retain teachers and hire teachers with some experience to keep those numbers up. But I think the class size limits may have impacted teacher retention more than this rule. Unfortunately as we now have a staff of really experienced teachers we are being told that the school can't really afford our experience and that QEIA funds don't cover the expense of maintaining small class sizes with experienced teachers, so it has become somewhat of a catch 22.

In Oakland, schools get a certain amount of money based on how many students they enroll. That means schools with more experienced (and thus more expensive) teachers have trouble making ends meet. This creates a bind for schools that are, like New Highland Academy, successful at retaining teachers.

In the battle over school reform, QEIA has some important lessons for us. First of all, the extensive work done by the teachers at New Highland Academy was made possible by small class sizes, which contributed to a stable cohort of teachers able to learn together over time. The other key ingredients were a supportive principal, Liz Ozol, and the active partnership the teachers formed with the Mills Teacher Scholars program. It is also worth noting that QEIA was the product of the California Teachers Association, an NEA affiliate, which worked with legislators to draft the law. Teachers unions have often been portrayed as obstacles to reform - here the story is turning out to be quite the opposite.

It is also worth noting the problematic side effect of stability -- the problem created when a staff becomes more expensive because of their level of experience. Our schools have become rather dependent on turnover as a norm to keep staff costs low, so a school such as New Highland Academy can become a victim of its own success, in terms of paying staff salaries.

What do you think we can learn from this project? How can schools that are successful in creating stability cope with the increased costs associated with more experienced teachers?

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