Teaching Profession

In Ky., Master Teachers Find They Can’t Go Home Again

By Julie Blair — May 30, 2001 4 min read
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Karan S. Wilson knew exactly what she could offer the children of Trimble County, so she put pen to paper and outlined the kind of job that would make use of her expertise in curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

After all, she had just spent four years as one of Kentucky’s “highly skilled educators,” a cadre of trained teachers who help turn around troubled schools.

But administrators thanked the former high school social studies teacher for her effort, then told her there was no money to create such a position. Instead, they offered to put Ms. Wilson in charge of in-school suspensions—work, she said, that hardly made use of the skills she had spent years developing. “I felt a loyalty towards them, but I was very unhappy,” Ms. Wilson said, her hands folded gracefully on the table before her. “I really wanted to use the expertise I had, but the district was not ready for it at the time.”

Within the month, she left and took a job in neighboring Oldham County as the director of instructional support—the dream job she had articulated. It was, she said, Trimble County’s loss.

Ms. Wilson’s situation is common among the Kentucky educators who have served stints in the Highly Skilled Educators Program. The state legislature has invested $35.2 million over 11 years to provide the teachers and administrators who serve in the program with intensive professional development, yet many participants report that they don’t have enough opportunities to use their skills after their tenures have ended.

A central part of the nationally watched Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990, the program plucks star faculty members from their districts, provides them with training, and sends them into poorly performing schools to consult for two or three years. Once the tours of duty are completed, participants are expected to return to their home districts and use their expertise.

‘Major Problem’

But a study released last winter by the state education department found that a majority of the 110 consultants surveyed who served between 1994 and 2000 didn’t find appropriate jobs back home. Many were so frustrated, in fact, that they transferred to other districts, left the public schools, or moved to neighboring states to work in more conducive environments, said Diana L. Dattilo, who manages the program. “It’s a major problem,” Ms. Dattilo, who served as such a consultant herself, said. “It is also a tough issue to solve.”

Alumni of the program say the trouble often lies with administrators who are unwilling to alter the school culture to make use of teachers’ leadership and expertise. Administrators, though, say they simply don’t have job openings that appeal to the former participants or the money to create them.

Those who are accepted to the program spend five months preparing to be educational consultants while working in their local districts. Sabbaticals begin in the summer, when consultants are dispatched to aid between one and four schools deemed “low performing” by the state’s accountability system.

The consultants, who are paid by the state, work for up to three years. Participants are guaranteed jobs in their former districts at their previous salaries for one year, an element of the program designed to provide security.

Although the consultants give their time in the program high marks, their re-entries appear to have been anything but smooth. Only 48 of the 110 participants studied returned to their home districts, the study by the Kentucky Department of Education found. About 25 percent left the public schools to become private consultants, and another 10 percent left Kentucky to work in another state, Ms. Dattilo said.

Of those who did find jobs at home, only 33 said they made use of their new skills.

Districts upheld the deal by providing positions, but few could afford—or were willing—to employ the consultants as specialists, Ms. Dattilo said. Many educators were asked to return not as resource teachers, spreading their knowledge throughout the school, but as classroom instructors.

Karen D. Cheser wanted to return to the 4,500-student Campbell County district as an administrator and had garnered the support of the then-superintendent. The school board, however, would not consider her candidacy, because she was credentialed as a teacher, not an administrator.

The reality, Ms. Cheser said, is that she had helped turn around two elementary schools in crisis—buildings that had no standard curricula and that were sites of public screaming matches between parents and faculty members. After just one year of Ms. Cheser’s aid, one of the schools was listed as one the five most improved in the state; the other school’s writing scores increased 25 points on a 100-point scale on the state’s assessment.

Her school board’s demand for credentials “may have been an excuse,” Ms. Cheser said. “They didn’t want anyone coming in and telling everybody what to do—especially somebody who was ‘just a teacher.’ ” Ms. Cheser instead took a job as the coordinator of an elementary program—in another district.

For their part, administrators say that they want to try innovative ways of using teachers, but are constrained by budgets and personnel issues.

“The educator says, ‘Look how much I’m worth,’ and its true, but I don’t have the vacancies,” said Roger G. Brady, the new superintendent in Campbell County. “I don’t have the capacity or budget to have two assistant superintendents.”

State officials are debating possible solutions. The state is considering offering bonuses to districts that rehire their consultants, to be used for salaries. Policymakers also are talking about developing an alternative-certification program for former consultants who want to become principals, Ms. Dattilo said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2001 edition of Education Week as In Ky., Master Teachers Find They Can’t Go Home Again

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