Staffing High Needs Schools….

Reading about the Bush Administration’s plans to force teachers to transfer to troubled schools left me remembering my neighborhood school, Northwoods Elementary.  Northwoods was a place where I felt safe, where my classmates were the same year after year and where parents were actively involved as tutors and PTA volunteers.  It was a place that neighbors could rally around and come together for events, building a sense of unity that spread across subdivisions and throughout our community.

The teachers at Northwoods were nothing short of outstanding.  I remember being involved in creative activities designed by Mr. Nowak and Mr. Tribula.  Mr. Earl, who was my band teacher, challenged me time and again.  Our school was consistently recognized for academic success because of the commitment of our teachers to continual growth, to one another and to their students.

There can be no question that the teachers of Northwoods were a significant factor in the success that the children of our community went on to experience.  Their accomplishment provided the foundation for ours.  In that sense, I understand the intent behind plans whose final goal is to guarantee that every child has the opportunity to experience a highly accomplished teacher.

But forced transfers to high poverty schools is yet another simplistic solution to a complex educational problem.  Until we make the serious investments necessary to restructure schools of poverty as places where accomplished teachers want to teach, we will fail in an endeavor that is at once well-intentioned and essential.

We need to begin by ensuring that our highest needs schools are led by our most accomplished administrators.  When principals work to develop a positive relationship with their faculties, the entire school benefits from the sense of collegiality.  As researcher Linda Darling-Hammond has written, effective school leadership has a "magnetic" effect, attracting accomplished teachers who are searching for environments that will allow them to reach their peak performance level.  Data from the North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions Survey supports Darling-Hammond’s assertions–fully 30% of NC teachers cite school leadership as a significant factor in their decision to stay or to leave their current buildings.   

We can also provide accomplished teachers with the professional flexibility to do what it is that they do best:  identify needs and then design instruction tailored for the students in their classrooms.  Rigid attempts to control the work of teachers in high-needs schools chase away motivated educators who thrive on the mental creativity of the act of teaching.  As one of my colleagues recently wrote, "If I’m allowed to utilize my teaching expertise–to draw from what it is that I know will engage and stimulate my students–then students will achieve at levels that no one could dream of.  It is only when I’m hampered that I can’t do what it is that I do best."

We can provide additional time and training to teachers in our highest needs schools and communities.  Meeting the academic and social demands of children living in poverty requires a set of skills that few educators–regardless of level of experience–are prepared for.  Opportunities to engage in high quality, teacher driven professional development during the course of the school day and year will help to ensure that teachers in high needs communities experience success with economically and culturally diverse student populations.

Finally, we can reconsider the use of external accountability models that result in schools of poverty being labeled "failures" in the eyes of the community.  We do little to emotionally reward teachers who work in high needs buildings–relying instead on their altruism as a retention strategy–and current accountability systems are loaded in favor of teachers in less demanding schools.  Such systems only serve to demoralize teachers and to discourage them from accepting difficult assignments.

Looking back, I’m challenged by my neighborhood school experience.  Sometimes I wonder, "Was I successful only because my parents were able to move into the right home in the right neighborhood with the right school?"  Neighborhood schools worked for my family, but who did they fail?  Wouldn’t every parent–if they could–have chosen to move into my neighborhood.

What’s more, I often feel a sense of shame for having spent the majority of my career working in affluent suburban schools.  My students have every advantage—and while I firmly believe that they deserve accomplished teachers as well, I know that I have, in a sense, avoided the children who need me the most.

But some part of me believes that the real shame belongs to educational decision makers who fail to commit energies and resources to addressing what is a very real and very complex problem.  We have a responsibility to all children…and to meet that responsibility, we must be able to guarantee that students of poverty have access to our most accomplished educators. 

Meeting that responsibility, however, requires more that simply reworking collective bargaining agreements to allow for forcible transfers of senior teachers to troubled schools. 


2 thoughts on “Staffing High Needs Schools….

  1. Mary Ward

    As I read Bill’s eloquently written, researched based article, I can appreciate the depth of his views on the subject. Every child deserves our best but we know that it will not happen as long as the playing fields are not leveled? The question that most grabbed me was when he asked, “Did I get a good education because of the neighborhood my parents elected as our place of residence?” Here in lies the truth and the painful reality of class, caste, systemic inequities. If we were to ask all children, “Who wants to be born in poverty?” We would get no takers. “Who wants to be taught by teachers that are not certifed, accomplished, and lacking in vision and preception?” We would get no takers. So, how will we get equitable funding, resources, highly qualified teachers and administrators? Will it take a private institution’s plan to raise the performance level of public schools’ performance? The guilt Bill feels comes more from being part of a system that has biased practices but he can’t control how government spending is channeled? I wonder what it would take for Bill to leave his school system and school to teach the children who had no choice in the matter of parents, economic status, neighborhood, principal, or teacher?
    While every challenge issue he raises is true and every proposed solution is what school systems like mine in Halifax County needs, I feel that it’s impossible to fully understand what is needed in high needs schools unless you are willing to teach in those schools and live within a proximinity of those communities for mor than one year. While I agree in principle on many things Bill writes, the one thing that is crucial to success in high needs schools is the freedom to allow flexibility, creativity, and top notch leadership to flourish. I can almost guarantee that those essential princiles are absent in low performing, high needs schools. The way to combat poverty is with resources. What most high needs schools are deprived of is economic, human, capital, and academic resources.
    The true question remains,”Does my state consider the education of the children in my school significant enough to society to strategically address and provide empowering vehicles to bring about major changes in the current way high needs schools operate? Is our state willing to revamp the entire school’s program and provide the same economic and substantial opportunities for learning that Bill’s County and school district offers? If not, isn’t this notion of addressing the real issues of high needs schools just another debate?

  2. Mike

    While the solutions suggested here are apt, and should be the norm in every school, they seem to be based–to be fair, probably not intentionally–in the all too common idea that teachers (and principals) can somehow make children learn, and thus are wholly responsible for individual student learning. NCLB and simliar initiatives use this fallacy as their foundation, requiring absolutely no accountability of children or parents.
    Putting the best and most experienced teachers in a building where the inmates run the asylum will do little but cause early retirements. Excellent teachers commonly acheive better results than those less skilled and capable, but teachers can only, in the best of situations, provide an excellent learning opportunity and be encouraging and inspiring so that students will take advantage of that opportunity. But that’s the ultimate problem. If the students don’t take advantage of the opportunity, all of that skill and good will on the part of teachers counts for little.
    If teachers work in a building where feckless principals can’t or won’t enforce discipline, where drug use is rampant, where students and teachers fear for their safety, where attendance and adherence to rules is optional, their level of skill and experience will matter little.
    This is also an area where the federal government has no business intruding. But consider that I believe that a federal department of education is an abomination, let alone the horrors it foists upon local schools. If a given school district has negotiated a union contract that gives away the farm, it’s not for the feds to correct. The citizens of that district must see that they elect school board members with backbones who will appoint a superintendent who also has a spinal column. Want the right to assign teachers where they’ll do the most good? Great. Negotiate it or stop whining about why you can’t, but don’t rely on Beltway politicians to look out for you. That’s a sure recipie to really screw things up.

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