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When Kids Who Need the Most Get the Least

• Mike Thomas

Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, the shortage of excellent teachers in low-income classrooms has become the newest battleground in education equality.

Impoverished schools suffer from a higher percentage of new teachers and ineffective teachers. This disparity was the basis of the landmark Vergara v. California ruling that struck down tenure protections. By securing the jobs of ineffective teachers, the court ruled, the state violated its constitutional guarantee of equality in educational opportunity. A similar lawsuit has been filed in New York.

And now in Florida, a new report explores the quality of teachers in Miami-Dade. It finds that more than 60 percent of all beginning teachers can be found in the county’s two most disadvantaged voting districts—those with high populations of impoverished African-American students.

The two disadvantaged voting districts also suffer from a high teacher turnover rate, “indicating a possible churn whereby new teachers are hired and continually replaced year after year,’’ the report says. The districts have the smallest percent of high-performing teachers compared to the county’s other seven voting districts, and the largest number of D and F schools as graded by the state.

The report was done by the National Council on Teacher Quality and commissioned by the Urban League of Greater Miami.

In noting the anniversary of the Brown v. Board decision, Willard Fair of the Urban League, wrote in the Miami Herald: “Sixty years later, however, we continue to find ourselves in a similar situation, where our must vulnerable, black and low-income children are being systematically denied educational opportunity and all the benefits that entails.’’

Vergara v. California focused on tenure policies. The Miami-Dade study focuses more on the challenges of attracting and keeping quality teachers in disadvantaged schools.

“Some students come to school months or even years academically behind their peers,’’ the report says. “Violence in low-income communities takes its toll, and some students may be hungry or may not have a guiding hand at home to help with homework or read them a book. Add to that geographic locations that are often far from teachers’ homes in neighborhoods that can feel unsafe and that lack basic amenities as simple as a coffee shop.’’

And within schools, the report says, the least effective teachers can wind up with the most challenging students. More experienced teachers gravitate toward higher performing classes.

“The Miami-Dade teachers’ contract specifies that principals are to schedule teachers’ assignments, and when doing so the principal should take into account seniority and teacher preferences,’’ says the report.

The NCTQ makes a number of recommendations, including higher compensation, job descriptions that weed out beginning teachers, more authority for principals to assign teachers, a better learning climate, and instituting an involuntary teacher transfer policy.

Interestingly, a recent federal study looked at the use of financial incentives to bring higher performing teachers into struggling schools. Called the Talent Transfer Initiative, it offered high performing teachers in 10 school districts representing seven states a $20,000 incentive to teach in a low-performing school for two years.

Only a small percent of teachers accepted the offer, indicting money alone is not a motivating factor for most of them. But the teachers who did go produced the desired results, significantly improving test scores in the elementary grades. Ninety percent of the teachers stuck with their new schools for the two-year bonus period, and a surprising 60 percent stayed afterward.

Our research has found that teachers are far more likely to stay at schools with strong instructional cultures, where expectations are high, clearly articulated and widely shared and where teachers receive consistent feedback and have opportunities to improve,’’ wrote Emma Cartwright from TNTP, which participated in the study. “Investing resources into improving school culture may be a powerful way to shift or retain talent, in lieu of or alongside bonuses.”

About the author

Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet

Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at