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.

About Joanne


  1. Some students have no interest in education, either because of familial, cultural, or other reasons. Mandatory education does not help those who don’t want to learn, but forcing those kids into a classroom degrades the environment for every other student.

    We should have other options, including allowing students to drop earlier and enter the workforce if they wish. After a few years, if they find they want to give education another shot, allow them to achieve a highschool education through alternate means (night classes, online classes, etc…)

  2. If good teachers were all that were needed to improve results, we wouldn’t have thousands of suburban schools in Program Improvement because they aren’t improving their Hispanic and African American test scores. Those same fab teachers in suburban schools, teaching in their credential, are not getting much better results.

    The problem isn’t the teachers.

    Many times the “out of specialty” designation is determined by looking at the teacher’s major. I have a degree in English and two master’s, neither in math. I also got an 800 on the quant section of the GRE and passed all three of the CSETs in Single Subject math, which means I am as qualified as I need to be to teach math. So I’d like to know more about these teachers–how many teachers teaching math are not credentialed in math, regardless of degree?

  3. Such a shame good teachers have the freedom to choose where they want to work. If they would just give up all notions of free will, and act like the widgets they should be, the Powers That Be could create perfect schools.

    (sarcasm, if you couldn’t tell.)

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    The GRE is a joke. But you’re right — the score is probably indicative that you’ve got your head screwed on right when it comes to high school math.

  5. I work in a wealthy, suburban school district but live in a poor, urban one. The one reason why I won’t apply to work in a tougher neighborhood is discipline. If you can guarantee that my classroom will remain a respectful learning environment for all stakeholders, then I will work in that school. Period. But if you have a namby-pamby administrator who asks me to allow verbal outbursts, disrespectful language, tardies, cell phones, and various other interruptions, then forget it.

    If I’m going to work in a low-performing school, then I want all of my resources to go to excellent lesson design and student assessment. Period. That would be my focus.

    I am a stickler for using every single learning minute, and I can teach with a chalkboard and a textbook, given good circumstances. But I won’t – and you won’t find many human beings who would – teach in a situation where those to-the-minute lessons are frittered away by interruptions.

  6. Mike Langyel, in my opinion, has identified what may be the biggest concern of talented teachers – will the principal back me up? I’ve been teaching/tutoring science and math for many years in a private setting and I’m entering an alternative certification program soon. I would absolutely love to teach in Title 1 schools, but my worry is chaotic schools with wimpy principals. I’ll work as hard as it takes for a principal who puts academics first and doesn’t excuse bad behavior.

  7. $2500 (minus taxes) … to teach bang my head up against the wall and put myself in physical danger every day. You’re kidding. I know teachers are supposed to be dumbest of the dumb, but obviously even we’re not biting on that one.

    I LOVE my competently run school district and that’s despite having some of the highest teaching loads and lowest salaries/benefits in the area.

    FWIW, it isn’t so much moving teachers among schools within a district — urban teachers and suburban teachers have different employers. You can’t put me in the high need city school because I don’t work for them. And at this point, even if I wanted to go to that school, I’d lose money because I don’t take my step seniority with me, so really… no incentive at all. I’m not going to take on a harder job and cut my pay in half.

  8. Louse Barrett says:

    Teachers in LA County read about your upcoming lay offs
    Why is it that the foreign Gulen Movement that manages over 150 Charter schools in the USA continues to falsely obtain h1-b work visas for un qualified teachers from Turkey / Turkic speaking countries? In the Los Angeles County the Gulen Schools are called Magnolia Science Academy. Read the h1-b Visa report below, they are claiming they cannot find math, science, computer and English teachers in the USA. These schools have recently been busted in Ohio for hiring foreigners via the Concept Schools.
    H1-b Visa info here:
    In fact, did you know that the Cosmos Foundation part of the Gulen Movement has immigrated more foreign teachers in than the largest school district in the USA. Of course that would be LAUSD, who is allowing this? That number for Cosmos Foundation alone is over 1,100 h1-b visas since 2001 and Cosmos Foundation is only ONE of the Gulen Movement’s NGOs that are doing this. Who is dismantling the American Education System so followers of Islamic Imam Fethullah Gulen can teach our children?
    Not only visas for teachers but now they are getting h1-b visas for finance managers, business managers and legal counsel (as if America doesn’t have thousands of qualified people for these jobs)
    If you are a proud American Teacher and have been laid off, do what the teachers in Chicago and Ohio have done…………………………fight back against the Gulen Movement overtaking America’s education.

  9. Pundits who propose moving teachers around like chess pieces need to experience the drastic decrease in productivity that happens when students are
    neither encouraged nor required to behave like serious people. I get it that the students in low-income schools face huge challenges. But I’ve also had the experience of teaching in a low-income, general enrollment school where the students behaved perfectly. Well, maybe close to perfectly. How the administrators made this happen I do not know, but it can be done.

  10. Roger Sweeny says:


    I completely agree that teachers should be able to choose where they want to work. I also think administrators should be able to choose to pay teachers differently depending on what, who, and where they teach.

    I love to teach curious, prepared kids–and I’m good at it. Unmotivated, uncaring–not so much. I’d be happy to give 20K of my salary to someone who was good with those kids. They’d be better off and so would I.

  11. If there’s a superintendent of an inner city school district who would like to hire an excellent teacher, offer me 5% more than what I’m making now and I’ll take it.

    Unfortunately, I won’t hear from you because you’re lacking either the money, the power, or the concern.

  12. We’ve tried it in Houston. Hand selected teachers offered up to 20,000 dollars to teach in distressed schools.

    Mostly, it just drives the teachers out of the district.

  13. Richard Aubrey says:

    Teaching is actually fun. It was when I did it. I had sergeants for classroom control.
    Also, the subject matter seemed relevant to the troops.
    Two biggies.

  14. There’s also the fact that teachers often have k-12 children of their own and, like other parents, try to live in the best school district and safest/most pleasant neighborhood they can afford. Leaving that neighborhood to teach disinterested and/or undisciplined kids in areas of questionable safety is unlikely if they can work locally.