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Poorest APS Schools Get Lowest-Paid Teachers

By Andrea Schoellkopf
Journal Staff Writer
       At Polk Middle School, one of the poorest and lowest-performing schools in the district, only three of the 33 teachers are at the top of the pay scale.
    That's a rate of 9 percent — a poor showing when you consider that districtwide, 33 percent of the total 5,900 teachers are in at the top level, meaning they have earned the highest certification or have at least two decades of experience.
    Meanwhile, roughly half the staff at Roosevelt Middle in Tijeras or Eisenhower in the Northeast Heights are in the top tier, pulling in salaries of $50,000 or more at schools with a much lower percentage of students living in poverty.
    Rose-Ann McKernan, director of APS Research, Development and Accountability, said she hasn't looked at how teacher experience relates to student performance in APS.
    But she added, "... The lowest performing schools are the most difficult to staff. As soon as anyone gets any experience, they move on."
    She said that distribution might change, for instance, in five or 10 years when a large number of teachers are eligible for retirement.
    Salaries, she added, are not a good measure of a teacher's worth.
    The state invested $278.4 million by dipping into its permanents funds in 2004 to adopt the three-tiered licensure system and boost teacher pay in an effort to recruit and retain high-quality teachers.
    But in Albuquerque, the highest-paid teachers are frequently not at the neediest schools.
    The district is trying to change that.
    Superintendent Winston Brooks said Friday that APS is offering $5,000 annual stipends to teachers at Ernie Pyle Middle School and Rio Grande High, both low-performing South Valley schools undergoing a redesign, in an attempt to attract highly experienced teachers.
    If it works, the district may try to expand the incentives to other schools.
    Brooks said already, Ernie Pyle has drawn 100 applications for 10 openings in the upcoming school year.
    "It may not be just the money," Brooks said. "We don't know for sure whether it's (the new principal), the incentive pay, or just wanting a different challenge or being part of a redesign."
    Pay analysis
    A recent Journal analysis comparing the number of top paid teachers in each school found that while high-performing schools tended to have variations of teacher experience, those on the low end of the spectrum — often in poor neighborhoods south of Central — were often lacking in experienced teachers.
    Under the licensure system, teachers at the top tier earn $50,000 or more. They qualify by having at least National Board Certification, or a master's degree with two professional development dossiers, which is a compilation and explanation of classroom data.
    However, at the same pay grade are Tier 2 teachers with 29 years of experience and a bachelor's degree, or 18 years with a doctorate. Those teachers were grandfathered into the top pay scale.
    APS elementaries had a greater variation of experience levels among its schools than middle or high schools: At Chamiza Elementary in Taylor Ranch, nearly two-thirds of the 46 teachers are pulling in salaries of $50,000 or above, and the school is meeting Adequate Yearly Progress. In contrast, only six of the 60 teachers at the lower-performing Barcelona in the low-income South Valley are bringing home top salaries.
    Other schools where higher-paid teachers make up less than 20 percent of staff are Sunset View, Edward Gonzales, Pajarito, Mountain View and Kit Carson. All but Sunset View are south of Central in high-poverty neighborhoods.
    Overall, high-performing schools don't necessarily have a large number of higher paid teachers. At schools like Double Eagle and Dennis Chavez elementaries in the far Northeast Heights, less than a quarter of the faculty is in the top pay level.
    Among high schools, the district's only schools meeting state standards — Sandia and La Cueva in the Northeast Heights — top the list with half their staff at the highest pay level. West Mesa, Rio Grande and Atrisco Heritage, all in the Southwest part of town, have below 30 percent of staff in the highest pay scale.
    Less than 6 percent of the teachers districtwide are making the $30,000 salary given to teachers in their first three years. Those teachers move up to level 2 and a base salary of $40,000 when they submit a dossier showing they are qualified.
    A recent Legislative Finance Committee study found little correlation between teacher pay and performance statewide, though the lowest-performing students in high-poverty schools were most likely to have beginning teachers.
    McKernan said the biggest factors affecting school performance are the income levels of students' families and the number of English language learners.
    The best schools, teacher's union president Ellen Bernstein said, have a mix of experience levels that bring both fresh energy and a veteran's perspective.
    The trend, Bernstein said, appears to be that as teachers get more experience, they seek jobs closer to their homes, such as East Mountain residents wanting to work at Roosevelt Middle.
    Also, she said, often the schools with the highest-paid teachers have a history of strong principals.
    "People stay at schools with good principals," Bernstein said. "A lot of the reason why you're going to see longevity at certain schools is because people have stayed there for the current or the past principal."
    Some of the schools that have more teachers at the low end of the pay scale are marked by turnover in principals or lack of teacher autonomy in the classroom.
    For instance, Polk, among the district's first schools to be labeled "failing" in the 1990s due to test scores, has had a high turnover of principals.
    Schools that were labeled as "failing" in the early years of the state and national accountability movement have seen pressures such as prescribed curriculum, Bernstein said.
    "I guarantee you, I have not had a teacher say to me, 'I'm leaving the school because of the kids,' " Bernstein said. "It's the other conditions: the professional respect, autonomy, the leadership, the working conditions."

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