School staffing reflects divide

Best-qualified teachers shun struggling schools

Disparity seen nationwide

Smith says recruitment, incentives may stop trend

December 07, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

When the principals of Van Bokkelen and Jones elementary schools sat down this summer to assess their staffing levels, they had strikingly different experiences.

Rose Tasker of Van Bokkelen, an academically struggling, high-poverty Anne Arundel County school near Fort Meade, had lost a fourth of her staff, as usual. Most of her applicants were new to teaching.

But Diane Bragdon of Jones, a high-performing school in affluent Severna Park, retained all of her faculty members. There typically has been little turnover at the school, and half of the current staff has more than 10 years of teaching experience.

"I'm guessing anytime I have a vacancy, I'll be able to pick from the creme de la creme," Bragdon said.

The experiences of these two principals reflect a troubling pattern found across Anne Arundel's 77 elementary schools.

Top-performing schools in middle- to high-income communities tend to attract the best-educated and most-experienced teachers. And low-performing schools that serve disadvantaged populations end up with a higher proportion of teachers who hold less-advanced degrees and are newer to the profession.

The problem has gained the attention of Superintendent Eric J. Smith, who says he is working to reverse a pattern that experts say occurs nationwide in many districts with diverse populations.

Smith said the uneven distribution of high-caliber teachers and the instability of some school staffs contributes to the achievement gap between racial and socioeconomic groups in Anne Arundel - a disparity he has made it his mission to reduce.

The budget proposal he plans to unveil next week is expected to include a plan to attract more experienced and highly educated teachers to low-performing schools.

It will consist of aggressively recruiting teachers for jobs in schools that receive federal Title I funds for disadvantaged children; giving county teachers more financial support to pursue advanced degrees; and offering pay incentives to teachers whose pupils make academic gains at low-performing schools.

The superintendent said he wants to hire new talent and fortify the teaching credentials of existing teachers, not draw good teachers away from their current schools.

"It's really important to make Title I schools an attractive place to work and to stay," Smith said. "It also sends a message to the teacher that what they're doing at these schools is important to the district and is valued."

The Maryland State Department of Education recently began collecting data on teacher qualifications at individual schools.

An analysis of that information by The Sun found that teachers who hold master's degrees nearly always outnumbered those with only bachelor's degrees at the 10 elementary schools that scored highest in math and reading on this spring's Maryland School Assessment.

Crofton Woods Elementary, for example, has 17 teachers in academic subjects who hold master's degrees and six who hold bachelor's degrees.

At the 10 schools that performed most poorly on the tests, the reverse is true. Mills-Parole Elementary, where 72 percent of children qualify for subsidized lunches, has five teachers with master's degrees and 14 with bachelor's degrees.

According to the school system, low-performing schools also have higher rates of teacher turnover and fewer veteran teachers.

Experts say teachers at low-performing schools often become discouraged and migrate toward jobs where they can feel more successful.

"They're faced with the choice of: more difficult job, same amount of money, or less difficult job, same amount of money," said Kevin Carey, a policy analyst for the Washington-based nonprofit Education Trust.

Smith said that the incentives for teachers to work in Title I schools would have to be approved by the school board and agreed to by the teachers union.

"It's a change in culture," said Smith.

But Sheila Finlayson, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, said the union traditionally has opposed giving certain teachers extra pay.

"We want everybody to be appropriately and adequately compensated," Finlayson said. "Everybody's got a tough job in every school. They all work very hard."

Finlayson also cautioned against using a teacher's educational level or years of experience as an indication of effectiveness.

Many parents and principals agree that such measures don't always give a full picture of a teacher's ability.

Bragdon says she looked for "passion" recently when she interviewed applicants for two teaching spots added to Jones Elementary because of an enrollment increase.

"Both of the ones I hired glow when they talk about children," she said. "There's an intangible energy that you feel in a teaching candidate."

Brenda McCray, the grandmother and guardian of a North Glen Elementary School pupil, said she prefers less-experienced teachers because they are more flexible.

"I am much more willing to accept a younger teacher and help them learn as my child learns," said McCray, a Baltimore school administrator. "The educational system is changing so much, [and] an older person may not be willing to do the changing that's necessary now."

Tasker, who was brought in as Van Bokkelen's principal eight years ago after it was tagged for potential takeover by the state, says she doesn't mind having to hire teachers with little experience.

"They come because they want to be here at this school, and they love children," Tasker said. "If they have those two qualities, then I'm able to work with them and help them develop into the teacher that they want to be."

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