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High-poverty schools need better teachers, LFC study says

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico needs to get better teachers in its high-poverty schools.

That was the major theme of a Legislative Finance Committee report released Thursday that said a “new approach” – including better incentives and improved hiring decisions – is needed to attract and place more effective teachers in high-poverty schools.

LFC staffers studied educational strategies in 15 high-poverty schools around New Mexico in an effort to better understand why many high-poverty schools struggle academically and why some perform better than others.

The schools that performed better had a mix of veteran and beginning teachers, used test data to help inform instruction, were sensitive to the different cultures of their students, had high expectations, and provided “wraparound” services.

Other findings included that many of the struggling schools are disproportionately staffed by beginning teachers “with low licensing exam scores, which has been shown as a predictor of effectiveness.”

“The state needs a new approach to ensure more effective teachers and leaders are at high poverty schools through a combination of financial incentives, state guidance on best practices for districts, and more purposeful hiring decisions of teachers locally,” the report said.

New Mexico should do more to encourage "more effective" teachers to work in high poverty schools, according to a new Legislative Finance Committee report released today. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

New Mexico should do more to encourage “more effective” teachers to work in high poverty schools, according to a new Legislative Finance Committee report released today. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Some local incentive programs already exist. Albuquerque Public Schools offers a $5,000 annual stipend to lure experienced teachers to two high-poverty schools – Rio Grande High and Ernie Pyle Middle School, according to spokesman Rigo Chavez.

At Emerson Elementary, one of the schools studied in the LFC report, teachers receive higher salaries for working an extra hour every school day and five extra days a year, Chavez said. Teachers are paid as 1.2 full-time equivalents.

More than 50 percent of the teachers at Emerson are tier-three teachers, the highest tier under New Mexico’s licensing system, according to the LFC report. Emerson earned a C grade for the 2013-14 school year under the state’s school grading system.

The APS school board, in its contract negotiations with teachers this year, wanted the district administration to have more authority to move teachers from one school to another to fill a vacancy or fit a particular need. Teachers opposed the new transfer language, arguing they build relationships with the surrounding community. The board backed off that position in order to get a contract signed.

Public Education Department officials agreed with parts of the report but also raised several concerns, said Leighann Lenti, deputy secretary for policy and programs.

The study looked at 15 schools, which amounts to only 3 percent of the elementary schools in the state and is a small sample size, she said.

The PED also took issue with one of the report’s recommendations to create a streamlined statewide turnaround program for struggling schools. Currently, there are several different turnaround initiatives in the state. Given the different characteristics of schools around the state, a uniform program might not work, Lenti said.

“Current state-supported turnaround programs are in fact demonstrating significant positive results in improving student achievement, as measured by year-over-year growth,” the PED said in a letter to the LFC.

The LFC study criticized the turnaround programs as “costly, unsustainable, and difficult to maintain once the funding sources were depleted.”

“PED turnaround initiatives target schools after they are failing for a number of years and PED does not hold school districts accountable for implementing turnaround initiatives in all low-performing schools,” the report said.

The Albuquerque Teachers Federation, reacting to the study, said the best way to attract quality teachers to high-poverty schools is to make sure those schools are run by top-notch principals who respect teachers’ ideas about their classrooms.

“It’s about being treated and respected as a professional and having great administrators who support you. That attracts teachers,” President Ellen Bernstein said.

Bernstein said she disagrees with the report’s recommendation calling on lawmakers to make the process of becoming a principal easier. She said it’s important to ensure schools have good principals.

The LFC report argued that New Mexico’s “internship process, salary, and extra duties are cumbersome and a disincentive for aspiring principals.”

The report listed several recommendations for the Legislature, PED and individual school districts. Among them:

  • Lawmakers should prioritize funding for the K-3 Plus, early-reading program; pilot a similar program for fourth and fifth grades in high-poverty schools; promote prekindergarten in districts that will put the program in its high-poverty schools; and continue to increase formula funding for at-risk students.
  • PED should target early reading funding to high-needs schools and districts.
  • School districts should require low-performing schools to follow characteristics of high-performing schools; and provide ongoing professional development for teachers in strategies for educating at-risk students and students who don’t speak English.