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The teaching challenge
Arizona Daily Star
August 5, 2003

It is well-known that experienced teachers tend to transfer from the low-income schools where they are most needed. And it is known that those schools are the biggest problems in public education. The challenge is to find ways to lure the best teachers to underachieving schools, and then to keep them there.

A story in Sunday's Star reported that TUSD schools on the Southwest Side have a lower percentage of experienced teachers than the more affluent parts of town. That, and the fact that schools in low-income areas are generally ineffective at educating students, is not new information.

However, the story by reporter Jennifer Sterba revealed just how inequitable the numbers are. About half the Tucson Unified School District's teaching staff has more than 10 years experience. But at schools in the Southwest section of the district the average is eight years. At some of the schools- Ochoa, Tolson, Grijalva and Miller elementary schools, and Pistor, Valencia and Hohokam middle schools
- between 31 and 40 percent of teachers have fewer than three years' experience.

The reality is that experienced teachers flock to the schools where the rewards of successful teaching are more immediate and more obvious. That reality is not limited to public education in Tucson. The movement of teachers is a nationwide phenomenon that, like all of public education for the poor, demands attention.

Observers like Alfredo Gutierrez, a founder of Chicanos por la Causa and a former candidate for governor, see that teacher flight as perpetuating failure for those students. That observation, too, is hardly a debatable point.

What has not yet become clear in the national discussions, though, is what to do about the problem.

The solutions are critical for a profession in which half of all new teachers leave after five years on the job, and in which those staying often rely on senority to land plum assignments.

It is even more critical in TUSD, where the district recently encouraged experienced teachers to retire in order to hire more inexperienced, less- expensive teachers. It doesn't take a nuclear scientist to figure out that in the long run, the students in the poor parts of town will bear the brunt of that move.

In the meantime, in TUSD, experienced teachers are offered a $1,000 incentive to work in some of those underachieving schools.

That seems inadequate at best. At least one critic of public schools, nationally acclaimed writer Jonathan Kozol, proposed more than 10 years ago that school districts recruit experienced teachers to underachieving schools by offering a $10,000 incentive.

It's a proposal that still makes sense today, especially as teacher flight from the low-income schools continues.

TUSD's Anna Rivera, the senior academic officer for leadership, says more money would be a positive incentive. But she notes that teachers are also motivated by the intrinsic value of teaching.

Of course, personal rewards are motivators for most teachers. But school districts with large numbers of poor students must rely on something more than the good nature of teachers to staff those schools.

There are numerous and complicated causes of poverty and school  underachievement. Inexperienced teachers are just one of many problems.

Even so, all the Tucson school districts must find ways to attract top-quality teachers to the schools that need them most.

Administrators who rely on the good will of teachers to staff low-income schools will find those schools mired in the same underachievement that has defeated public education for decades.