Attracting Great Teachers Where They're Needed Most

John Thompson wrote an excellent piece about why teachers do not choose to teach in high poverty schools, called Secretary Duncan Owes Teachers an Apology.  Under No Child Left Behind, a teacher's career is on the line if she finds herself in a "failing school", i.e. a school that serves underprivileged families.  Even the finest teachers are forced to focus like lasers on test scores lest their school be shamed first, labeled second and closed third, with half of the teachers fired.  My grandson attended one of these schools in Portland, a school where science, music, art and social studies were pushed aside and children subjected to nearly six hours a day of reading, language arts, test prep and study skills.

Nationally, children from the poorest fifth of American families are unlikely to rise above their poverty.  65% will remain in the bottom two-fifths the rest of their lives.  The fact that education is the key to mobility isn't just a trite Americanism.  It's true.  But the education being forced on the schools that teach these children is not motivational and does not communicate excitement about learning.

Attracting our best teachers to work with the children who need them most will take a complete shift in approach.  If we're truly serious about this as a goal, here are some ideas for making it happen.

Don't force schools to be test factories.  High stakes tests and threats to schools whose students do not compete with the most advantaged communities are narrowing children's education opportunities.  Test annually but make the tests diagnostic and useful, not ends in themselves.
Assess how education resources are distributed in your state.  What resources do upper middle class suburban schools have?   What do rural schools and inner city urban schools have?  How are dollars spent?  Are some schools burdened with more expensive transportation, special education or ESOL programs that others don't have to fund?  If so, look then at resource allocation, not just per student expenditures.  Develop a statewide plan for equalizing those resources and make sure that the arts, foreign languages, science labs and other programs are available everywhere, not just at privileged schools.

Place a moratorium on charter schools.  Charter schools have resegregated our urban education system.  In my daughter's northeast Portland neighborhood, there are two publicly funded elementary schools.  The Waldorf charter school is 82% white with 32% poverty; the neighborhood school(King) is 87% black and Hispanic and qualifies for 100% free and reduced lunch.  I wrote in more depth on this in Charter Schools: Segregation through the Back Door.

Offer incentives to promising teachers and administrators who choose high poverty rural or urban schools.  This has traditionally been forgiveness for college loans.  There should be pay and work incentives as well: better pay, more opportunity for innovation and adequate preparation time (on a par with wealthier schools).  Offer these incentives to recent graduates in the top 20% of their class or experienced teachers with proven records.  And make solid efforts to place student teachers in high poverty schools, something made difficult by the fact few teaching colleges are located nearby.

Don't use these schools as dumping grounds.  Too often the highest poverty schools receive transfers from other schools, but not for the right reasons.  Problem teachers and administrators are reassigned to them to get them out of someone else's hair or to put them where pressures from parents are minimal.  

Offer incentives to teachers who continue at these challenging schools.  The poorest schools have the highest turnover.  Give teachers a reason to stay, not just pay incentives but leadership opportunities and greater autonomy.  Encourage pilot programs and empower teachers to implement the ideas they generate.

There are probably other ways to attract high quality educators to high needs schools.  But as John Thompson so plainly articulated, the current plan is not one of them.