Why quality teachers matter

The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education reports that students of color experience more suspensions, poorer quality teachers, and have access to fewer advanced math and science courses. The findings, released March 14, 2014 demonstrate that students of color experience more negative outcomes with education than white students. The disciplinary concerns were discussed in a recent AACF Blog post. But disparities don’t end with disciplinary action. They exist in teacher quality as well.

A “highly-qualified teacher” has been defined so broadly as to be meaningless. It means the teacher is certified in the area in which they teach. According to the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE), a teacher is qualified if they (1) have a degree, (2) have an appropriate license, and (3) demonstrate content knowledge in the area(s) they teach.¬† A more appropriate label is minimally qualified. The designation is no reflection of teacher quality but rather teacher minimum qualifications.

According to the OCR report data for Arkansas three percent of black students compared to one percent of white students are enrolled in schools wwhere more than 20 percent of teachers are in their first year. You can read more about the national findings here. The numbers aren’t very encouraging but they present some great opportunities for Arkansas.

State policy makers will begin discussions on the impact of raising the minimum salary structure. This would alleviate the rising disparity in district minimum salaries. According to a March 2014 Bureau of Legislative Research (BLR) report, eight districts in the state are hiring at the minimum level of $29,244 while there are five large districts paying more than $41,000 for starting teachers. The disparity has been increasing over the years, going from $13,763 in 2010 to $15,326 in 2013.

Needless to say, districts offering higher starting salaries have the edge in recruiting top teacher candidates. Let’s examine Stong-Huttig, a district that is in academic distress because less than fifty percent of their students perform proficiently. Strong-Huttig school district’s minimum salary is $29,250 ($6 above the state allowed minimum). The district’s neighboring district to the west, El Dorado, has a minimum salary of $33,500. To the east, Crossett’s minimum salary is $31,000. These aren’t large differences but if you were a recent teacher graduate looking for a position in this part of the state where would you apply first? Would only teachers unsuccessful in these better paying districts be looking for a position in Strong-Huttig?

Over the years Arkansas has attempted a variety of programs to improve recruitment and retention of teachers in the neediest parts of the state. One such effort, the high-priority district incentive program (A.C.A. 6-17-811) was discussed in a March 2014 meeting of the education committees where its effectiveness was questioned. The program is available to small districts (less than 1,000 students) where 80 percent or more students are eligible for the national school lunch program. Among other provisions the program provides a $5,000 bonus to newly hired teachers in one of the participating districts. There are lower incentives to retain one of these teachers in subsequent years.

The ADE is piloting the Teacher Cadet program in an effort to assist district with the “grow your own” strategy. The Arkansas Teacher Cadets Program is aimed at attracting the best and brightest students to the teaching profession. Arkansas currently has three such pilot programs in the Conway, Southside (Batesville), and Warren School Districts. Right now there are 43 cadets. These efforts must be expanded to improve the odds for quality teachers in low-income parts of the state.

We have districts in the state who cannot recruit enough fully-accredited teachers to staff their classrooms. These districts rely on programs such as Teach for America and teachers with waivers to teach out of area (not the grade or subject of their certification) for more than thirty days. In another March 2014 BLR report, 95 districts (out of 239) reported difficulty in recruiting high-quality teachers due to difficulty in offering competitive salaries. Another 57 districts reported difficulty due to scarcity of appropriately licensed personnel. Typically these are districts with higher percentages of students not performing proficiently.  Students not performing proficiently need our best teacher resources-not the alternatives.

To read more of the BLR reports see http://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/education/K12/Pages/AdequacyReportDetails.aspx?catId=2014