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What’s in a Label?

How NCLB hurts teacher quality at my school.


By Faye Wagoner

Attracting and retaining accomplished teachers for hard-to-staff schools is one of the toughest problems we face, and it is getting worse.

I teach in such a school. I have worked there for 16 years. Only one teacher, one counselor, and one support staffer have been there longer. We have been a high-needs school (25 percent special needs, 25 percent ESOL, 40 percent students of color) the whole time, but we only recently became hard-to-staff.

Everyone benefits from new blood, but too much blood loss can lead to organ failure. Our turnover rate has risen to about 20 percent. In addition to meeting our other challenges, we now have to incorporate large numbers of inexperienced teachers into our programs. This involves all kinds of mentoring and professional development that adds significantly to the work of the staff who stayed.

Faye Wagoner is spending this year exploring ways to keep accomplished teachers in hard-to-staff schools.
Photo: Erin Marie Photography

Our school has many strengths. We have always seen our diversity as a strength, building on it to create a positive learning community that stresses what we have in common while valuing our differences. Staff members are aware of our students’ many learning styles and backgrounds. Pre- and post-tests show that they make great gains during the two years we work with them. They are in teams so they have a small school experience with teachers who know them well. Teachers extend themselves to their students to make them feel cared for. In 32 years of teaching, this is the hardest-working staff I have ever been a part of.

But turnover at our school is rising and it has become harder to attract capable, experienced teachers. There are few financial incentives. Teachers in less challenging schools receive the same pay as we do.

Many of the extras in our schools are provided by local PTAs. Our PTA cannot afford the computers and other material that PTAs at nearby schools buy. Also, students in the top 5 percent are skimmed off to a gifted center that offers them a special program (and keeps their special test scores).

But these problems have existed for a long time, and we managed to cope. The new burdens, which are finally eroding our strength, are due to the high-stakes testing required by No Child Left Behind and the bad publicity it led to. With the ever-increasing NCLB pass requirements, many other schools will soon be joining us.

These tests are difficult for our children. We struggle to build vocabulary and provide learning experiences that put words into a context that makes sense. Our students do make good progress, but a significant number don’t pass the test and are labeled failures. For many, this is the third or fourth year in a row. We spend a lot of time trying to convince them they are smart and can succeed. Then the results come out and, despite their progress, they are failures again. How long would most adults put up with a similar situation before they gave up?

When the results are published, the “failure” label discourages skilled teachers from joining us.

Meanwhile, administrators, trying to boost scores, resort to prescribing the details of how we teach, rather than trusting in the good judgment of our highly skilled staff. That leads experienced teachers to leave for positions where they will be treated like professionals.

It doesn’t have to be that way. I believe there are ways to create a wonderful learning community in a school that has many needs and great diversity. Here’s what I believe it would take:

There should be real, not token, financial incentives for working in a very challenging setting. Incentives on the order of $10,000 a year would have a significant impact on the decisions of experienced teachers, many of whom have families to support.

Students should be evaluated using multiple assessments so their strengths become as apparent as their weaknesses.

New teachers should have a strong induction program that gives mentors release time and allows new teachers ob-servation time to learn effective strategies.

Finally, teachers should be treated as professionals, trusted to exercise their judgment, and given time to collaborate in tailoring their efforts to open the doors of learning to every child.

Faye Wagoner, a seventh-grade English National Board Certified Teacher, is spending this year at NEA headquarters working on ways to improve teacher quality at hard-to-staff schools.

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