Teacher transfers

December 27, 2004

IS IT FAIR to force an experienced teacher to stay in a low-performing Baltimore County school when she wants to transfer to another school? Well, maybe. County officials understandably want to keep top-quality teachers in low-performing schools.

The trick is to be at least somewhat flexible, to satisfy the needs of both teachers and county school officials.

Baltimore County's 162 schools run the gamut from some of the highest performers in the state to some 40 schools that have been designated by the county as "priority" schools, mainly because of low test scores. Many of the "priority" schools are also Title I schools, which receive extra federal funds because they serve a high proportion of children from low-income families. New teachers in Title I schools must be highly qualified, in anticipation of the federal No Child Left Behind law's mandate that every classroom have a highly qualified teacher by 2006. Since low-performing schools generally have greater teacher turnover and fewer qualified teachers, it's as important for these schools to retain experienced top-notch teachers as it is for them to attract new ones.

To help improve the performance of schools with low test scores, and to comply with NCLB's mandates, county school officials imposed a policy last year that does not allow a highly qualified teacher to transfer from a low-performing school to another school in the district unless a highly qualified replacement can be found.

But the teachers' union counters that the policy is too restrictive and makes experienced teachers feel trapped. Union officials don't disagree that each classroom should have a highly qualified teacher, but they argue that there are other ways to improve school performance. They point to such proven elements of school success as strong administrators, reduced class sizes, and staff hires tailored to each school's needs. Those arguments should be taken into account as the school board and the union negotiate a new contract.

Baltimore County and other districts would not feel the need to be so rigid if there were simply more teachers in the mix. In a typical year, Baltimore County hires about 800 teachers to keep its total roster 8,000. On average, Maryland produces some 2,000 new teachers a year, while the state's two dozen districts seek to hire about 8,000 a year. That means intense competition among districts throughout the state -- and beyond state borders -- for qualified instructors.

That competition will only increase as NCLB's teacher mandates come due for school districts across the country. From that perspective, Baltimore County's transfer-policy standoff highlights a problem that the federal government, states and local school districts need to confront: how to come up with incentives that will attract greater numbers of caring, capable people to the teaching profession.

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