Steering strong teachers to weak schools

Reformers are trying to steer strong teachers to weak schools, but so far it’s not working, writes Alan Borsuk in part four of the Building a Better Teacher series by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the Hechinger Report.

A study released Nov. 18 by The Education Trust, a respected Washington-based education advocacy group, showed that students from low-income homes continue to have teachers who are working outside their field of expertise or who have little experience at rates much higher than higher-income students. The report called progress in changing that “disappointingly slow.”

In the suburbs, hundreds of teachers may apply for every opening. Few teachers want to work at West Side Academy, a K-8 school in a tough Milwaukee neighborhood, says the principal, James Sonnenberg. Three of his most promising teachers were laid off last spring because they lacked seniority, then recalled but assigned to other schools. Sonnenberg was sent “experienced teachers whom he had not sought, nor had they sought him.”

It’s hard to change the system without weakening seniority rights, paying some teachers more for taking on harder jobs and figuring out how to identify good teachers.

Denver, which has performance pay, rewards teachers for working in low-performing schools, Borsuk writes, but it’s not clear that it’s helping.

Wisconsin pays a $2,500 bonus to any teacher who earns certification from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, plus an additional $2,500 to board-certified teachers who work in low-performing schools. But there aren’t enough board-certified teachers to make a difference.

Milwaukee Public Schools hope to develop incentives to improve teaching in low-performing schools, but the focus is on rewarding all teachers in a school instead of singling out exceptional teachers.

The district’s main focus is on improving the teachers it’s already got through “effective on-the-job training, mentoring and coaching,” writes Borsuk.

Allan Odden, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, says Chicago, Boston and New York improved the quality of teachers by looking farther afield for good teachers, avoiding the worst teacher-training programs.

“They recruit top talent,” he said, and put them in high-needs schools.

Odden also said programs such as Teach for America have tapped into a strong desire by top-flight college graduates to spend at least two years helping the country by teaching in demanding situations.

Fire the weakest teachers — the bottom 6 percent — suggests Eric Hanushek, a Stanford University economist.

Sonnenberg wants to require teachers to go where their skills are most needed, regardless of seniority. “Why can’t the employer determine what is best for the organization?” asked Sonnenberg.

But there is almost no talk of forcing teachers with seniority to take such assignments. And, ultimately, it is tough to make people take jobs they don’t want.

Making schools better places to work is the best way to attract good teachers, says The New Teacher Project.

Mike Langyel, president of the Milwaukee teachers union, listed things that would attract teachers: “A competent and fair principal is key not only in getting teachers there but in keeping them. . . . We’re also looking at schools that are safe.”

A few teachers are so brilliant they can teach well in any environment; some are so bad they’ll teach poorly anywhere. Most teachers will teach effectively in a well-organized school with an academic focus; they’ll teach poorly in a chaotic school.

Strict rules for behavior, longer school days, greater intensity around academic work — these are parts of the formula that some schools are using with success.

Joshua Beggs, who heads the small high school operation of Eastbrook Academy, a religious school on the north side, said: “Many high quality teachers want to spend their lives helping underserved students succeed. Give them a classroom full of students who want an education and they’ll work in the poorest neighborhoods and may even accept below-average pay. Place them in a school full of unruly, undisciplined, unmotivated kids and they’ll give it their best shot — but ultimately they’ll quit if they can’t achieve success.”

There isn’t enough money in the world — certainly not in school district budgets — to get talented people to bang their heads against a brick wall every day.

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