By the time most Wake County students return to class in August, a fifth of their teachers will likely have either changed schools in Wake or left the school district entirely.
The annual turnover among Wake’s 10,000 teachers creates challenges in which beginning teachers get more lower-scoring students than experienced educators do – and high-poverty schools have higher teacher turnover.
Now school leaders want to re-examine how teachers are assigned and allowed to transfer between schools.
“You’re at 20 percent as an average of change occurring,” Wake Superintendent Jim Merrill recently told school board members. “That’s a lot of moving parts on average across all our schools.”
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Some of Wake’s most vulnerable students won’t get the help they need if they’re assigned to less-experienced teachers who are still learning their jobs, advocates say. Research shows that beginning teachers are less effective at raising student achievement.
Students at high-poverty schools will see less stability in their education if their teachers are leaving at higher rates to work in more affluent schools.
But some veteran teachers could balk at being required to work with struggling students, and parents of successful students may complain about getting less-experienced teachers. Teachers may also leave Wake if they’re told they can’t transfer to a different school.
“You can’t keep people against their will,” said Paulette Jones Leaven, president of Wake NCAE, the largest group representing Wake teachers.
One option might be to pay teachers more to work at high-poverty schools, like the Project LIFT schools in Charlotte. But it can be expensive.
“While I think the financial incentives are a good place to start, we also have to think of school leadership,” said Terry Stoops, director of education research studies for the John Locke Foundation, a think tank in Raleigh. “Do we have a structure in place to make sure that our strongest leaders are leading our most struggling schools? Republican legislators are starting to think about those issues.”
One of the reasons Wake school leaders used to give for reassigning students to promote diversity is that it’s harder to get teachers to work at high-poverty schools. But Wake has backed away in recent years from busing for socioeconomic diversity.
Wake, which has about 160,000 students, partnered with Harvard University’s Strategic Data Project to look at teacher effectiveness. A report was presented to a school board committee this month with some sobering findings, including:
▪ Schools with a high percentage of students receiving federally subsidized school lunches have higher percentages of newly hired teachers than low-poverty schools;
▪ English language arts teachers in elementary and middle schools with three or less years of experience are being assigned more lower-performing students than teachers with four or more years of experience get;
▪ Math teachers in elementary and middle schools with six or less years of experience are being assigned more lower-performing students than teachers with nine or more years of experience get;
▪ Experienced teachers who are rated as less effective at raising student achievement are transferring between schools at a higher rate than teachers who are more effective;
▪ Teachers are transferring out of schools with a higher share of students receiving subsidized meals than teachers transferring into schools;
▪ Teachers are transferring out of schools with a higher share of minority students than teachers transferring into schools;
▪ Teachers are transferring out of schools with lower math and language arts scores than transferring into schools.
‘Something we need to look into’
“We have teachers leaving, period, whether it’s a low-performing school or not,” Jones Leaven said. “That just accentuates the situation. The turnover rate is unconscionable.
“It’s cultivated by an environment where teachers are not valued or respected by those people right down here in Jones Street,” she added, referring to the state General Assembly.
The Wake report drew questions from school board members at the June 5 student achievement committee meeting.
“If our low-quality teachers are being transferred, where are they being transferred to?” said school board member Jim Martin. “Are they being transferred to the high-poverty schools?
“Are they being transferred to the hard-to-fill, hard-to-teach positions where we actually need the more experienced? That’s something we need to look into.”
Martin said the assignment of lower-scoring students to less-experienced teachers is an “administrative issue” and not a teacher issue.
Cathy Moore, deputy superintendent for academic advancement, said the district is reviewing the data on how students are assigned to teachers, particularly for math in middle schools.
A trickier and more sensitive issue is whether the report should lead to changes in how Wake handles requests for teacher transfers. The district annually approves hundreds of requests from teachers to transfer between schools.
Moore said the district will pull its internal transfer data and review the teacher transfer policy.
Merrill, the superintendent, told board members a lot of principals say that if teachers want to leave, they should let them go.
School board member Kathy Hartenstine said she always wanted teachers who wanted to work for her when she was a principal. She cited how a teacher who is driving 45 to 50 minutes to work might want to transfer to a school closer to home.
“I just don’t think you get a lot of bang when you tell someone they have to stay because they are experienced,” Hartenstine said. “There’s another way to get them to stay other than saying, ‘You have to,’ through policy.”