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Grand Rapids school board resists Teach for America in underperforming schools


By Monica Scott | 
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on February 09, 2015 at 9:00 PM, updated February 10, 2015 at 4:39 PM

UPDATE Superintendent Neal withdraws Teach for America request

GRAND RAPIDS, MI -- The Grand Rapids Board of Education had a rigorous debate Monday, Feb. 9, regarding a request from Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal to use 10 to 15 Teach for America workers to help fill positions in five underperforming Southeast Side schools next year.

Neal said the proposal was made as one of several strategies to help the district's recruiting challenges district-wide but added the organization, which places college graduates in some of the country's struggling schools for a two-year stint, is not a "silver bullet."

Still, some board members resisted the idea for some of the same reasons it did in 2012 -- including TFA grads not being highly qualified trained teachers but holding degrees in other areas; often departing after two years; and potentially hurting future teacher recruitment.

Related: Teach for America to be dropped from district's restructure plan

"I really want qualified teachers in our classrooms and these are students who chose not to go into the School of Education but other fields and now want to teach," said board vice president Maureen Slade, a former teacher and school administrator, during the Monday work session. "I find it offensive to the profession."

TFA workers were proposed for Dickinson and Campus elementary schools, Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Academy, Alger Middle School and Ottawa Hills High School -- schools where the district has difficulty retaining and recruiting teachers for in core subject areas.

"This would just be one strategy, and we would not stop what we are trying to do with our universities to grow our own," said Neal, who said the district currently is using a lot of substitutes.

Casandra Madero, 12, on right, and Princess Leon, 12, take notes in their seventh grade math class at Alger Middle School on Monday, October 28, 2013. Alger is one of five schools recommended for Teach for America instructors.Emily Zoladz 

Sharron Pitts, assistant superintendent of Human Resource and Legal at GRPS, outlined the challenges for the board as well as a more aggressive and comprehensive approach to recruiting.

"We have a statewide crisis in getting teachers to fill positions in certain areas," said Pitts, who added the district's hard to fill positions are in math, science, Spanish and special education. "The problem is compounded because we are having difficulty even getting substitutes."

"We are constantly turning over teachers, especially in these hard to fill areas, because we are competing tooth and nail with our surrounding districts."

The district began the school year with 42 union teaching positions vacant; 31 were in hard to fill areas. There are currently 20 vacancies with 13 in those key areas.

Substitutes in the classroom for more than 90 days must hold a bachelor's degree, have an academic major or pass the state approved content test in the subject area taught and complete an approved elementary education program or Michigan Test for Teacher Certification. Those subbing for fewer than 90 days only need 90 college credit hours, less than an associate's degree.

Mary Bouwense, head of the teachers union, said GRPS using Teach For America teachers is a terrible idea and the district should be putting the most experienced teachers in front students, especially those in the proposed TFA classrooms.

"These people get five weeks of training, this is not their passion, and they usually leave after two years," she said. "I think the district needs to do a better job of presenting the district as a place that cares for, respects and values its employees and it needs to consider working conditions."

While a few board members shared some of Slade's concerns, a couple others saw the need to address the crisis in the short-term, while working toward a long-term solution.

"Of course, I'd rather grow our own, but if we can't get people through the hoops that they need to get through, we need to stop subbing in classrooms," said board member Dr. Monica Randles, referencing Pitts remarks about the new professional readiness exam and the difficulty new teachers statewide have had passing it.

"We need to find some stability around that and this is part of the answer. I feel this is worthwhile to take a look at."

John Helmholdt, district communications director, said TFA is looking to open up in the West Michigan market, not just in GRPS, but is looking to place up 25 TFA workers in traditional and charter schools.

He said the district would be required to pay the them as first-year teachers but the additional costs for training, certifications and coaches, up to $3 million, to be paid to TFA would be covered by anonymous philanthropists from the community. He said the district has gotten positive feedback about the work of TFA workers in Detroit.

In addition to concerns about the impact on current and future teachers and the motivations behind the TFA push, board president Tony Baker also raised questions about political fallout from such a move, including the district's consideration of a bond proposal in the fall.

Why half of the nation’s new teachers can’t leave the profession fast enough.

 Kathleen Jasper  December 29, 2014

A mass exodus is happening in k-12 education. Research shows that 50% of new teachers leave the job before year 5. That number is consistent across the country and represents a giant chunk of the workforce. According to study conducted by Alliance for Excellent Education, teacher turnover costs the US 2.2 billion dollars annually.

When asked about this costly phenomenon, Dr. Atkins, the assistant superintendent of Lee County Schools, one of the largest school districts in Florida, mentioned that his district’s strategic plan included goals to reduce teacher turnover. He also mentioned the first step to achieving these objectives is to understand why people leave – a key element that was missing in years past.

It took me all of 10 minutes to find that key element. I didn’t need a fancy strategic plan or a lengthy research study. I simply asked 10 teachers, with various years in the system and at different levels, the question, “Why do you think 50% of new teachers leave teaching before their 5th year?”

Disclaimer – Obviously a larger sample would be more ideal, but I wanted to prove a point: instead of speculating and arbitrarily blaming different things for this phenomenon, just ask around and you will find some answers pretty quickly.

Consistent across all teacher responses – lack of support by leadership.

As we ring in the New Year, how about a little self-reflection? Perhaps, the problems start at the top with the nation’s education commissioners, superintendents, directors, principals and assistant principals.

However, when asked about the cause for this rapid teacher turnover, Dr. Atkins cited lack of professional development and inadequate training in college of education programs.  And he’s not alone; lots of leaders continually say the same thing about teacher turnover, “We need better teacher preparation programs.”  It’s a phrase as prolific as, “we need to close the achievement gap” or “we have to compete in a global society.”

If people are saying they don’t feel supported by leadership, it isn’t a college of education problem or a professional development/training problem – it’s a leadership problem.

The teachers I asked did have other reasons for leaving, but those reasons can be indirectly or even directly related to inadequate leadership.  For example, a number of teachers said, “little to no planning time and being assigned the most challenging classes and students.” This happens all the time. New teachers are thrust into the most challenging situations the first year – remedial, intensive classes that tend to have the toughest behavior issues. The classes teachers teach and how much planing time they get is decided by the leaders in the building.

When I asked one teacher why he thought so many leave the profession, he said, “I have to work two jobs because my teacher pay is so poor. So, I work retail on nights and weekends. The funny thing is, my managers in retail are better leaders than those in my district.”

Six of the 10 teachers I asked said being blamed for everything wrong with education and even the problems of the country is enough to walk out the door.  “Who can blame new teachers for not wanting to take on that responsibility?” One said.

Leaders should do more to protect their teachers from this kind of unrealistic scrutiny.

Another response, “I could talk forever about this. But to keep it short….teachers quit because we have all the responsibility and little or no authority in the classroom. Administrators don’t support teachers and often don’t trust our judgment as professionals. It’s very hard to stay at a job where you are not supported, appreciated or trusted. Add disrespectful students and parents, and it becomes a daily battle to go to work.” A daily battle to go to work sounds like reason enough for anyone to leave the profession. She went on, “My stepdaughter has been teaching for three years and she’s done. It’s sad because she’s a teacher at heart – this is her calling. But she says no way. Her main reason: lack of support from administration and parents. She said she is held responsible for things she can’t possibly control.”

This was another commonality among responses. Most of the teachers I asked said having their occupational fate tied to students’ scores on high-stakes tests was too volatile and not an accurate proxy of teacher effectiveness. Tying teacher pay and evaluations to test scores was a decision made at the very top – first with President Bush’s No Child Left Behind and now with President Obama’s Race to the Top.

But what about professional development and adequate training cited by so many educational leaders as the reason for the mass exodus?

Not one teacher I asked mentioned college of education programs or lack of professional development. In fact, many teachers feel over-saturated with professional development and are frustrated that PD has become a vessel for an onslaught of unsupported district and state mandates.

Over and over again the consensus among teachers was lack of support by leadership.

Looks like we found the “key element”; now what can leaders do?

  1. For starters, create a better environment: support teachers, listen, help, and be nice.
  2. Don’t over schedule teachers.  Teachers need time to plan and time to work with peers.  Take some of that money spent on testing and throw a teacher an extra planing period.
  3. Take all extra, bureaucratic, busy work off teachers’ plates and let them teach.  Enough with the fat; trim it and give teachers some extra time.
  4. Restore autonomy and creativity back to the classrooms.

I just saved the US public schools 2.2 billion dollars a year. You’re welcome.