Original URL: http://www.oaklandtribune.com/Stories/0,1413,82%257E1865%257E1460315,00.html

Teachers key to top schools
The Oakland Tribune, June 17, 2003
Senior instructors in Oakland hills earn an average of $10,000 more than those in flatlands       

 By Jill Tucker and Robert Gammon, STAFF WRITERS

California taxpayers routinely spend thousands of dollars more teaching each of the state's already advantaged students than on the low-income, minority kids who are most likely to post the lowest test scores or drop out of school.

Elementary school teachers in the Oakland hills, for example, earn$60,000 per year on average, compared to about $50,000 for their inner-city flatland counterparts, according to a salary comparison of Oakland teachers conducted by the Oakland Tribune.

Add up those dollars over six years of an elementary school education and it means the state spends, on average, at least $60,000 more to teach one Oakland child than to teach another just a few miles away.

Across the Bay Area and the state, the wide disparities of tax dollars spent on teachers -- arguably the most important publicly provided factor in a child's education -- are commonplace from one district to another and within individual districts that have steep divisions of wealth.
In truth, how much teachers make tells little about how good they are. A lower-paid teacher isn't necessarily inferior, just less experienced. Teachers aren't paid based upon performance; Their paychecks simply reflect seniority and credentials.

And that means billions of California's education dollars don't follow the students, they follow the teachers.

Yet none of the state's decade-long attempts at education reforms has tackled what it means in sheer dollars to have lower-paid, uncredentialed and inexperienced teachers with poor and minority students.

"What we haven't done is an all-out effort to alleviate the maldistribution of teachers in the state," said Russlyn Ali, director of The Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based nonprofit dedicated to reducing disparities in schools. "Everybody is entitled to high-quality teaching. The kids who have the least, we provide them less of everything we know that matters the most."

The main cause of the gap stems from how California pays for its schools, along with rules-laden union contracts signed by individual districts and the lack of incentives for experienced teachers to take jobs in the least-desirable locations.

The disparities come into focus at the local level, where individual schools don't have their own budgets for teacher salaries. Instead, schools are assigned teachers based on enrollment. Two schools with the same number of students, for instance, typically have about the same number of teachers.

But teacher salaries play no role in that equation.

Teachers with seniority -- and therefore the biggest paychecks -- get preference in assignments and they overwhelmingly choose schools in well-to-do areas, with high-parental involvement and college-bound kids.

Those experienced teachers don't often end up choosing schools in lower-income neighborhoods, where parent participation is less. Instead, those schools often end up with more than their share of brand new, uncredentialed and inexperienced teachers who cost less. Not surprisingly, the low-performing schools also tend to have high teacher turnover rates.

In California's poor and minority communities, one out of five teachers is not fully credentialed, compared to about one in 20 in whiter and wealthier schools with higher test scores and lower dropout rates.

A credentialed teacher in California with 20 years experience makes upwards of $90,000 including benefits, depending on the district. An uncredentialed teacher makes around $45,000 with benefits.

That means the state ends up spending untold millions less teaching poor, minority kids.

Even when you include all state, federal and local funds spent on teachers, even money dedicated to low-performing and low-income students, districts still spend less on poor kids.

In Hayward, for example, the district spent an average $2,894 on teacher pay per low-income student during the 2001-2002 school year, compared to $2,934 for the students above poverty level, according to an Oakland Tribune analysis.

Under current union contract rules, leveling the funding playing field appears to be next to impossible. Contracts typically prohibit paying teachers more to work in specific schools. They also stop administrators from requiring veteran teachers to transfer into low-performing schools.

Teaching no picnic

Teaching in the state's lowest-performing schools is not easy.

Oakland English and social studies teacher Adam Rosenthal has been at Havenscourt Middle School for two years -- a Teach for America intern teacher two years out of college.

Every day over the last two years he faced students who arrive at school hungry, tired or plagued by personal problems. He doesn't have enough textbooks for all his students. Most of his students can't read at their grade level.

"You're the teacher, the therapist, the social worker, sometimes the parents, the mentor," said Rosenthal, who is leaving the classroom for law school in the fall.

In short, it seems to require a measure of altruism for teachers who choose low-performing schools.

Over the past few years, Gov. Gray Davis introduced numerous programs designed to help lure and retain fully qualified and experienced teachers to the schools that need them the most: student loan forgiveness, home loan help, university fellowships, mentoring and professional development, among others.

Several have fallen by the wayside with the budget deficit soaring -- including the $20,000 fellowships for future teachers who want to work in low-performing schools.

In the meantime, the percentage of uncredentialed teachers in numerous East Bay schools has increased in recent years, according to an Oakland Tribune analysis of school staffing data from the state Department of Education.

Fremont, San Leandro and Hayward districts, for example, each saw an increase in the number of schools with 20 percent or more uncredentialed teachers.

In 1997-98, there were four Fremont schools in that category. By 2001-2002, there were nine. During that same period, Hayward went from eight schools with at least 20 percent uncredentialed teachers to 12, while San Leandro jumped from one school to five.

Incentives for teachers

Across the country, other states have offered incentives -- smaller class sizes, merit pay or incentive pay -- to teachers who take the most difficult positions.

The programs are modeled on businesses practices that commonly use incentives to lure top talent to tough assignments.

"In contrast to the practice in many schools where weak teachers are assigned to the most vulnerable students, successful companies put their best people in 'turnaround' situations," wrote Susan Traiman, director of The Business Roundtable's Education Initiative, in the 2000 report, "Thinking K-16," published by The Education Trust.

The state's largest and most powerful teachers union, the California Teachers Association, eschews giving teachers financial or other incentives for a difficult assignment.

It would be "psychologically bad," said Wayne Johnson, CTA's outgoing president, adding teachers would resent colleagues with the same experience making more money. "The teachers in the hills would say we're doing the same job."

Johnson acknowledged that "poor kids are getting jobbed," arguing that smaller class sizes and more individual control over curriculum would attract more teachers to those neighborhoods. But Johnson wants those reforms for every school.

"That's not a strategy for systematic reform, to say it takes heroic effort by extraordinary people," said Merrill Vargo, executive director of the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that awards grants to help schools improve.

A student is lost

Earlier this spring, a small Hispanic girl kicked at the gravel on the asphalt playground at Havenscourt Middle School in Oakland as she explained why she had to repeat the sixth grade two years ago.

Midway through her first sixth-grade year, when about half the school's 35 teachers were uncredentialed, the girl's math teacher left and a series of substitutes took over the class.

"They didn't teach the same thing," the seventh grader said. "I didn't understand it. I got lost."

She flunked the class and the year. She will spend an extra year in middle school, costing taxpayers more than $8,000 extra to educate her.

If school districts can't convince credentialed, experienced teachers to take jobs in schools like Havenscourt, why not change the rules and force them to go?

"They'll quit," said CTA's Johnson. "They will just flat quit before they'll go."

Nonetheless, the Bush administration, under the No Child Left Behind Act, is requiring high-poverty schools to be fully staffed with "highly qualified" teachers by the 2005-2006 school year or face financial sanctions. The requirement comes with $2.9 billion in federal funding nationwide to improve teacher quality at each school.

Critics, however, say the state's definition of a highly qualified teacher includes interns -- which means low-income students could still lack a fully credentialed teacher and yet still meet federal requirements.

As it stands now, most school districts cannot afford to put veteran teachers in every classroom -- unless the class sizes get a whole lot bigger. California doesn't spend enough money on education to have universally small classes staffed with well-paid teachers.

In truth, districts typically staff schools with a mix of veterans and rookies. But in districts with divisions of wealth, the veterans more often opt for the high-performing schools leaving the rookies the job openings in in the highest-poverty, lowest-performing and least-appealing schools.

"Parents in the hills band together and demand that new teachers have full credentials," said William Chavarin, a first-year teacher at Lowell Middle School in West Oakland. "As a result, inexperienced teachers and those without credentials end up in the flatlands. But that just means the students are guinea pigs of the new teachers who are transferred around."