Replacing staff at failing schools doesn’t always attract and keep good teachers, report says

By Erich Wagner

Failing schools in Maryland that replaced most of their staff in an effort to improve have not been able to attract and retain effective teachers, according to a new report.

The report by the Advocates for Children and Youth organization followed 13 schools that implemented a plan to replace most of their staff, called zero-basing, and found “no evidence” that these schools were following the practices that make the zero-basing policy effective, particularly holding on to effective teachers.

Matthew Joseph, the group’s executive director, said schools’ replacement of staff did not ensure that schools would necessarily improve.

“When [these schools] had gotten rid of a large part of their staff, the state hadn’t asked them to prove they were getting better staff,” Joseph said. “Predominantly, what they got were young staff. That’s not to say those are bad teachers, but they’re basically not considered proven teachers.”

Joseph said evidence of failing schools using zero-basing “best practices” like professional development for young teachers, targeted recruitment campaigns to hire effective teachers, and financial incentives to get teachers to stay at these schools, was “thin.”

“Unless you’re consciously trying to [get better teachers in failing schools], it doesn’t seem likely that it would be happening,” he said. “In a school with a bad reputation, teachers try to get transferred elsewhere. Unless you’re proactive, you’ll only get teachers who couldn’t get slots anywhere else and new teachers, because most slots are filled by seniority.”

William Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Board of Education, said the state works with failing schools “every day” to ensure they are improving. He added that the state supports local school boards’ use of financial incentives to attract better teachers to failing schools, and pointed to the newly signed Education Reform Act of 2010 as a way to better monitor teacher performance and thereby ensure better teachers are working at these schools.

“We require through the Bridge to Excellence Act for local school systems to show how they’re improving school performance and closing achievement gaps between students,” Reinhard said. “One way is greater monitoring of teacher performance, which has not been done to this point on a statewide basis, but it was included in the law signed by the governor last month.”

Reinhard said it would take up to two years to implement the provisions of the new law.

Joseph said the Education Reform Act won’t be a cure-all for the problems his group identified.

“The way the state law read, the incentives have to be negotiated with local teachers unions,” Joseph said. “So you don’t really know what they’re going to look like. The unions have generally objected to differential pay.”

Joseph added there are ways the state can still promote incentives, and he looked at what states who won grants through the federal Race to the Top program did in the area of zero-basing. The State Board of Education has the authority to reject failing schools’ plans to improve, so they can reject zero-basing plans that do not include financial incentives.

“This gives leverage to the local systems, who can say, ‘If you don’t agree to incentives, you’ll be out of work,'” he said. “So the board could offer a choice: have a [zero-basing] plan that’ll work, or we’ll reject it.”

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