Center for American Progress

How Do We Keep Teachers In Underperforming Schools?

How Do We Keep Teachers In Underperforming Schools?




From the States

Teachers are doing the heavy lifting as states seek to raise student achievement in the era of accountability. Virginia, for example, raised the bar this year in reading and mathematics, and our teachers delivered: four out of every five schools in the Commonwealth met the requirements for Adequate Yearly Progress under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB).

But the goal of successful state accountability programs and NCLB is to raise achievement in all schools. This goal will remain out of reach unless states and school districts can recruit and retain experienced, effective teachers to accept the challenge of teaching in the schools where they are most needed.

Children who attend schools in poor urban and rural communities are twice as likely to be taught by an inexperienced teacher and more than twice as likely to be taught by a teacher who was a low-performer in college. Children in these schools also are more likely to be taught by a teacher without a major or minor in his or her subject area.

Many new teachers start out in rural and urban schools. Once they hone their skills and gain experience, they are able to transfer to schools in more affluent communities where salaries often are better. The revolving doors at the schools they leave behind continue to spin, making it difficult, if not impossible, to produce sustained growth in student achievement.

There are many talented educators in rural and urban schools. And it is understandable that teachers will seek to advance their careers by applying for better paying positions in less stressful environments. But if we want “No Child Left Behind” to be more than a slogan, we must address the inequitable distribution of teaching talent in our public schools.

As Governor of Virginia, and during my terms as chairman of the Education Commission of the States and the National Governors Association, I have had an opportunity to study the problems facing hard-to-staff rural and urban schools from both a state and national perspective. I am convinced that this is an issue where bold state-level initiatives can make a real difference.

By helping hard-to-staff schools recruit and retain highly qualified teachers, states can end the cycle of low performance and close the achievement gap that separates rural and urban children from their more affluent peers. A pilot program in two Virginia school districts is demonstrating that a program of targeted incentives for highly qualified teachers can slow and even stop the revolving doors at urban and rural schools while leveling the field for recruitment.

The Commonwealth Teacher Retention Initiative, which I launched in the fall of 2004, provides $15,000 relocation bonuses to highly qualified teachers who agree to work for at least three years in schools in two school districts that have had difficulty hiring and retaining effective teachers. Teachers who agree to relocate to one of these districts also receive $500 stipends for training and professional development.

The initiative also provides incentives for the highly qualified and effective teachers who are already teaching in these districts. These teachers receive $3,000 bonuses and the same stipends for professional development as teachers who agree to relocate.

Schools improve when teachers work as a team and the Commonwealth Teacher Retention Initiative includes incentives for teachers to pull together to raise achievement. Schools that reduce the failure rate on Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests by at least 10 percent receive grants of $200 per student, half of which must be used for salary incentives. The rest of the money can be used to improve working conditions through the purchase of classroom equipment and materials. The initiative also supports meaningful mentoring programs to increase the likelihood that promising new teachers will experience success and stay.

The results so far are encouraging. Caroline County, a rural county mid-way between Richmond and Fredericksburg, has experienced a 50 percent decline in teacher turnover at its middle and high schools. The relocation incentive is helping the county compete for highly qualified teachers with affluent districts in Northern Virginia and suburban Richmond. For example, more than 500 teachers applied for positions in the county this year, compared with 200 applications last year. So far, the county has used the relocation incentive to hire five teachers who otherwise would have been out of reach.

The early results also are promising in Franklin, a city in Virginia’s southeastern agricultural region. The $3,000 retention bonuses helped Franklin hold on to 18 highly qualified teachers this year who otherwise might have accepted offers to teach in Virginia Beach and other larger districts. The $15,000 relocation bonus brought a much-needed high school mathematics teacher into the district and the “buzz” in the teaching community about the new opportunities available in Franklin has helped the district hire 14 additional highly qualified teachers.

The success of this pilot program shows that something can be done about the inequitable distribution of teaching talent. If we provide good teachers with the proper incentives, and the support they need to be successful, they will consider teaching in more challenging rural and urban schools. This is an approach that can be adopted by districts as well as states.

Standards-based reforms are providing a foundation for increased achievement in Virginia and other states. It is now time to look beyond accountability, and make sure that every child receives effective instruction by highly qualified teachers.

Mark Warner is the governor of Virginia. Before he became governor, he had a successful business career in venture capital.

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