Teaching Profession

NEA to Spend $6 Million for Teachers in High-Needs Schools

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 16, 2009 3 min read
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The National Education Association plans to put $6 million over six years into “comprehensive strategies and policies to increase teacher effectiveness in high-needs schools.” The funds will be focused on four strategies outlined in this paper, authored by Barnett Berry, the president of the Hillsborough, N.C.-based Center for Teaching Quality.

Among Berry’s major recommendations, states and districts should focus on comprehensive initiatives to lure teachers to hard-to-staff schools and ensure that they grow in effectiveness while there. In other words, don’t just stick performance pay in alone and expect it to work.

Berry puts it this way: “Pay incentives, however will always be a partial solution. Incentives tied to working conditions and professional opportunities will be at least as important, if not more so. A menu of incentives should include, at a minimum, reduced class size or student load; increased planning and collaboration time; graduated teaching loads for novice teachers; and additional opportunities for proven teachers to lead initiatives and share expertise.”

It’s an appealing idea to consider homing in on the “bundle” of incentives that will encourage effective teachers to go to, and to stay in, hard-to-staff schools, or that will help existing teachers in those schools become more effective. Some of the best-known programs that have hit upon this idea and that look a lot like what Berry recommends are the Benwood Initiative in Tennessee, the Mission Possible program in Guilford County, N.C., and the Teacher Advancement Program.

As part of defining what those characteristics are, NEA says it will survey teachers in high-needs schools to understand the working conditions they need to be successful and review policies that seem to get in the way of those working conditions.

All that said, however, it is interesting to note that NEA is also fairly selective from among the report’s recommendations in what it plans to fund.

For instance, NEA promises support for the national-board-certification process and to encourage incentive-pay systems to offer at least $10,000 for such teachers to work in hard-to-staff schools. But it doesn’t say it will spend it to recruit, say, math and science teachers who are especially hard to find for low-income schools.And, of course, the union’s policies allow it to support national-board certification, but not incentive pay for certain subjects.

NEA also pledges to support “state and local affiliates who are legitimate partners in pursuit of innovative incentive and compensation programs, through funding streams such as the [Teacher Incentive Fund] grant program.” Now that confuses me. The TIF requires student-achievement to be part of the incentive programs, and districts have interpreted that to mean test scores. The NEA’s internal policies don’t allow for the use of test scores, so it can’t support locals that agree to bargain such programs (NEA folks didn’t respond to several requests for clarification on this issue.)

And finally, in the section on defining teacher effectiveness using multiple measures, Berry discusses a variety of possibilities (national-board certification, value-added, performance-based assessments) and says that researchers and teacher associations should work together to determine an acceptable definition and use the results to create policies to improve teaching practices.

NEA says it will pursue such efforts, but adds that those will include “proactive ways in which to use seniority or other contract provisions” to promote teacher equity.

In other words, while this $6 million infusion of cash is admirable, and the union’s work on working conditions in low-income schools could be revelatory, the actual policies it plans to support don’t appear to differ significantly from what the union already prefers.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.