Luring good teachers to poor schools not so easy, Fulton finds

In an effort to entice top-rated teachers to transfer to low-rated schools, Fulton County offered $20,000 stipends in a pilot program announced with great fanfare in 2014.

It was not an easy sell. Although 375 Fulton teachers were eligible to participate, only 32 applied. Teachers were daunted by the long commutes and concerns over how they’d be received at their new schools. The strategic staffing pilot end up placing 17 teachers but Fulton did not see enough promise to continue it.

“We ultimately do not view this as a scalable model for Fulton County Schools at this time. Some of the reasons for this conclusion include the limitations of the tools used to identify high performing teachers (Student Growth Percentiles, TKES), the challenging geography of our district (the distance to schools for many potential applicants is too far), perceptions of school climate and culture by potential applicants, and perceived and real struggles of teachers fitting in at their new schools,” said spokeswoman Susan Hale.

A federal effort to place strong teachers in high-need schools also ran into reluctance among teachers; Fewer than 25 percent of the 1,500 teachers offered $20,000 to transfer to a high-poverty school were willing to consider it.

Despite Fulton’s experience and that of other systems around the country, districts are still dangling bonuses in front of teachers to draw them to tough schools. Last year, the Pinellas County school system in Florida announced it would pay teachers up to $25,000 more a year to teach at low-performing schools in St. Petersburg. (The teachers would also have to attend training, work a longer school day and teach in a summer program.)

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One of the problems with these bonus programs is figuring out who the most effective teachers are and whether their effectiveness is portable. A teacher may dazzle in a middle-class school where students perform at grade level and parents jam open houses, but may fizzle in a classroom in a high-poverty area where many kids are behind and parents are too busy working two jobs to attend science fairs.

We are still not adept at separating out how much of student performance reflects socio-economics and family inputs and how much hinges on teachers and schools.

Consider the release Thursday of the Georgia Milestones scores, the state exams given each spring to elementary, middle and high school students and used to rate both schools and educators. In the five-county metro area, the top middle school for eighth-grade math was Dodgen in Cobb and the top elementary school for third-grade language arts was Lake Windward in Fulton. Both schools have 6 percent of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, the proxy for measuring low-income households.

When you go to the other end of the spectrum, the lowest-performing schools on this year’s Milestones, many have 90 percent or more of their students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch.

At Banneker High School in south Fulton, nearly nine out of 10 students failed the state geometry exam, scoring below proficient, at the beginner or developing learner level. No student scored at the advanced level, according to the state data released last week. Its free and reduced-price lunch eligibility is 100 percent, according to the state Report Card. At Milton High at the other end of Fulton County – with 11 percent low-income students — 24 percent failed the End of Course geometry test. Nearly 30 percent scored at the highest level.

Would $20,000 persuade math teachers from Milton to move to Banneker where the lift to student proficiency would be far more arduous and frustrating? Even if they agreed to move — and most likely would not, given the distance and the challenges — could they be as successful with students arriving in geometry class in need of remediation?

As one teacher said, “It’s easy to look like you’re the best when your students are all on grade level and come to class every day. The better strategy is to grow the people you have on site and give them the supports they’ve been begging for for years.”

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