Duncan’s Disincentives:

 Why the Best Teachers Aren’t Flocking to the Poorest Schools

By Jane Weinkrantz



Just when you thought education policy couldn’t get any stranger, President Obama and Arne Duncan have announced a plan to place effective, experienced teachers in high-poverty schools. This is not the strange part. The strange part is how hard they’ve worked so far to make certain that only inexperienced teachers who are unlikely to remain in the profession teach in high-poverty schools.

Under the new program, which is really just a leftover from No Child Left Behind, states will have until April 2015 to submit plans to place effective teachers in low-income schools. The federal government has committed $4.2 million to helping states create and implement the plans, though no one has gone on record to describe what a plan might look like apart from mentioning the usual buzzwords of “mentors” and “professional development”. It’s also unclear what will happen to states that don’t submit a plan or how teacher effectiveness will be measured. According to The Washington Post, Duncan told reporters, “When a school or a school district or a set of schools in a disadvantaged community has disproportionate numbers of inexperienced teachers, that’s not a good thing… As a nation, we’ve had far too few incentives, and, frankly, lots of disincentives for the hardest-working and the most-committed teachers and principals to go to the communities who need the most help, and we have to get together and reverse that.” While his goal is a noble one, Duncan omits in his statement is that he is the chief architect of the disincentives and that it is this administration’s education policy that he will need to reverse. In fact, his Race to the Top has pretty much guaranteed that no sane and intelligent “highly effective” teacher would leave a well-heeled school for a disadvantaged one.

            Why not? Well, lots of reasons. Let’s start with APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review). Thanks to Race to the Top’s new teacher evaluation system, teachers whose students don’t show enough growth on standardized tests can be rated “ineffective.” If that happens for two years in a row, a teacher can lose his or her job. (According to NYSED.gov, “Tenured teachers and principals with a pattern of ineffective teaching or performance, defined as two consecutive annual "ineffective" ratings, may be charged with incompetence and considered for termination through an expedited hearing process.”) In spite of Duncan and, before him, Bush’s constant dismissal of poverty as a factor in student achievement---I always picture Duncan with his hands over his ears singing “ La, la, la, la! I’m in my happy place!” whenever poverty is mentioned--- the fact is that low-income schools produce lower test results. Who is surprised? Children experiencing food insecurity, proximity to violence or gangs, homelessness, lack of proper medical care or adult supervision, sleeplessness or any of the other conditions associated with poverty are not going to score as well as students who have none of those worries.  I know many highly effective teachers full of kindness, compassion and knowledge, but I don’t know one who would give up a job in our own Plainview-Old Bethpage where parents check homework and the portal regularly, attend parent/teacher conferences, and can provide their kids with not only the basics their impoverished peers are lacking, but with many wonderful enriching and educational experiences beyond the norm, to go teach in a troubled community and risk their continued employment. There’s your first disincentive, Arne.

            Next, let’s talk about Teach for America, an organization the Obama administration has frequently praised, awarding it $50 million in federal funding for expansion over a five year period and even sending both a video message from President Obama and Arne Duncan in the flesh to speak at Teach for America’s 20th anniversary summit in 2011.  Teach for America has its applicants commit to a two-year contract. It then gives would-be teachers five---count them, five---weeks of training before plopping them in the front of classrooms at disadvantaged school schools across the land.  TFA has a reputation for choosing participants who see teaching as a gap year or an opportunity to ‘give back” while waiting to hear from law schools.  This does not trouble TFA’s founder Wendy Kopp who told The New York Times, Strong schools can withstand the turnover of their teachers…The strongest schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.”

            At Teach for America’s anniversary summit, Arne Duncan told the audience, “ Teach For America brought thousands of great teachers and extraordinary leaders into the classroom. Teach For America made teaching cool again in low-income communities for a whole generation of talented college graduates. Its record shows that poverty need not be destiny in the classroom. When it comes to teaching, talent matters tremendously.”

            A study by Morgaen L. Donaldson and Susan Moore Johnson published in Phi Beta Kappan found that after five years, only 14.8% of TFA teachers remained at the low-income schools where they began.  According to their research, “Teacher retention, particularly in low-income schools such as those where TFA teachers are placed, is critically important. Attrition, already high among new teachers across the nation (Ingersoll, 2002), has its greatest impact in low-income, high-minority schools. In the most recent data available, 21% of teachers at high-poverty schools leave their schools annually, compared to 14% of their counterparts in low-poverty settings (Planty et al., 2008). As teachers transfer within districts, they typically leave schools that enroll lower-income students and enter schools with higher-income students (Hanushek, Kain, & Rivkin, 2004).

This revolving-door effect (Ingersoll, 2004) leaves the very schools that most need stability and continuity perpetually searching for new teachers to replace those who leave. When teachers leave their schools after only a few years, those schools incur substantial costs. Most importantly, students are likely to suffer. Novices typically fill vacancies. As a result, students are taught by a stream of first-year teachers who are, on average, less effective than their more experienced counterparts (Murnane & Phillips, 1981; Rockoff, 2004). When effective teachers leave, schools also lose their investment in formal and informal professional development (National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, 2003). Moreover, routinely high levels of teacher turnover impede a school’s efforts to coordinate curriculum, to track and share important information about students as they move from grade to grade, and to maintain productive relationships with parents and the local community. Quite simply, they cannot build instructional capacity.” Donaldson and Johnson found that only 27% of TFA teachers remain in education after 5 years, just over half as many as the 50% of traditionally trained teachers who are still at the front of the classroom after five years.  In complete contrast to their new plan to place effective teachers in poor schools, President Obama and Secretary Duncan have vigorously supported TFA, an organization whose specific stated mission is to place inexperienced and untrained teachers in low-income schools and whose participants’ track record shows a lack of long term commitment.

Lastly, there is the charter school---that wacky Wild West of education where turnover doesn’t mean pastry and accountability is just a vocabulary word. Lifting the cap on charter schools was a condition of Duncan’s Race to the Top. Today, charter schools make up over 6% of American schools.  Charter schools tend to open in communities where people are dissatisfied with public schools, namely impoverished areas where schools are not safe, attendance and discipline are weak,  books, supplies  and technology are lacking and student achievement and graduation rates are below average. In the District of Columbia, 44% of schools are charters, while in New Orleans, charters are the only schools available. Period. Both D.C. and New Orleans are cities with many low-income students in need of experienced teachers. However, while the average public school teacher has 14 years of experience, the typical career of a charter teacher lasts no more than four years. Charter founders don’t seem to mind the turnover, perhaps because it keeps costs low or the balance of power uneven.  Doug McCurry, chief executive of Achievement First, a charter operator with 25 schools on the East Coast and an average teacher career span of 2.3 years, told Motoko Rich of The New York Times,My take is yes, we do need and want some number of teachers to be ‘lifers,’ for lack of a better word.” However, McCurry would be happy if “the majority of the teachers that walked in the door gave us five or seven really good teaching years and then went on to do something else.” (“At Charter Schools. Short Careers by Choice” by Motoko Rich, The New York Times, August 26, 2013)

Here is an excerpt from Nancy Bloom’s “Firing Day at a Charter School” that explains why the proliferation of charter schools in low-income communities is sure to deter experienced, highly effective teachers from joining the urban charter ranks.

We work very hard at my charter school, completing endless tasks that are not designed to instill habits of critical thinking in our students. Rather we are driven like cattle to collect mounds of data, to divvy the data up into tidy and irrelevant skill categories, and finally to create individual action plans to remediate each student’s poor data points. We are required to write lesson plans that note exactly which discreet skills we will be working on during every minute of every school day while delivering scripted programs. It takes hours to make these plans and we don’t use them. Can’t use them. Because kids are unpredictable and surprises happen. Most of us work at least ten hours on every weekday preparing our rooms and teaching. We continue working on weekends. The building is open on Saturdays and during vacations and there are a lot of cars in the parking lot on these days off.

This heavy workload doesn’t even take into account the trauma and anguish of working with urban children who suffer all the indignities of poverty. One day last week I had to file three mental health emergencies for neglect – two for kids who reeked of urine and one for a boy who was wobbly with hunger. One of our school psychologists once explained that many of our students come to school afraid and then stay afraid all day, afraid that their home or family may not be there when they get off the bus. These are the kids who constantly disrupt the classrooms. … The school psychologist said she prayed for the students’ safety every night. In case you are wondering, she quit before they got a chance to fire her.

Our workload is a favorite theme of the school’s superintendent and CEO. Charter school leaders love these business style titles. Dr. CEO often chuckles during all-staff meetings at how we charter school teachers work harder than they do in Boston Public Schools and get paid less for our troubles. Apparently he doesn’t know how insulting this is. Last December a group of administrators entertained us during a holiday party with a school version of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ that included a verse about how little we get paid for our hefty workload. That was the last time I worked a ten-hour day and the moment I knew I had to quit.

The third and last thing for you to know is that psychological torture precedes the June 1 firing ritual in the form of annual performance reviews. It looks like our new principal has brought this final blow to a new level. I’ve talked to many teachers and they report the same experience. He begins the review with gracious smiles and copious thank-yous for our commitment and hard work. And then he trashes our performance. So many of us have “failed to meet professional standards,” you would think the school could barely function. Teachers are leaving their performance reviews convinced their June 1 letter will be very bad news. They have to sweat it out to June 1.

            Under such grueling, sad and thankless circumstances and with absolutely no job security or professional respect, would any teacher who had a choice work in an urban charter school?  Yet, if Secretary Duncan gets his way, soon charters will all that is left in the inner city. (Remember when he told Roland Martin that Hurricane Katrina was the best thing to happen to New Orleans schools?) Duncan speaks enthusiastically about charters and backs up his words with big grants.

Why has this issue of good teachers in poor schools even come to the forefront recently? It probably has little to do with education or children. After all, the plan---such as it is---doesn’t have enough money or details to be taken seriously or to effect any significant change for America’s 1 in 5 children living in poverty. Nor is it controversial. Even though I am writing about how, prior to this week, President Obama and Secretary Duncan have consciously or unconsciously done everything in their power to discourage teachers…any teachers….from wanting to work in low income schools, I’m not disagreeing with the notion that all children deserve good teachers. Who could? This topic is designed for maximum agreement; multiple news sources have interpreted the White House’s move as an effort to get something accomplished while Congress remains stagnant. It also frames Arne Duncan in a more positive light after the NEA called for his resignation at last week’s convention. How bad can Arne be if he wants to clear the way for impoverished children to receive better instruction? Before we get too enthusiastic about Arne Duncan’s social conscience, let’s remember that he put the obstacles there himself.

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