December 1 — 2:09 pm, 2003

Communities can use data to improve teacher quality

The recently published Winter 2003-04 issue of the Notebook, "Improving Teacher Quality," examines the challenges Philadelphia schools currently face in attracting and retaining quality teachers across the District, particularly in schools with large populations of students of color from low-income households. (Pick up a copy at your local school, library, or community organization).

The Notebook asked the Public Education Network (PEN)-a national network of local education funds-to discuss how several community groups, in collaboration with local education funds, have worked to raise the level of teacher quality in urban school districts across the nation.

It is well known that quality teaching is a critical factor in student achievement. Helping communities better understand teachers and teaching, as well as the community’s role in achieving high-quality teaching, is the goal of a multi-year, multi-site school reform initiative of the Public Education Network (PEN), a national network of local education funds in 34 states.

Since their beginning twenty years ago, local education funds (LEFs)-independent community-based advocacy organizations working to improve public schools and build citizen support for quality public education-have worked with school districts and communities to improve public schools and promote student achievement, primarily in urban areas with disadvantaged students.

In recent years, by collecting data on the quality of the local teacher workforce, local education funds are engaging their communities in an exploration of the quality of teaching in their public schools.

Using a data collection framework designed to draw a detailed picture of the status of teaching in their communities, LEFs have found district data on teachers to be uniformly inadequate: fragmented, not maintained and inaccessible. Despite the lack of good data, a number of significant findings across the sites emerged:

� Teacher qualifications (such as experience, certification and advanced degrees) were linked with student income level. Poorer schools had less experienced, less qualified teachers and higher turnover rates.
� Certified teachers were inequitably distributed. Most LEFS reported that teachers working with either provisional certification or with certification through alternative routes were more likely to be placed in the hardest-to-staff schools with the highest-need students, and were more likely to be teaching out of their subject area.
� The turnover problem among new teachers was acute. Turnover rates were highest in middle schools.
� Urban school districts lost experienced teachers to higher-paying, suburban districts. This held true even though salary alone was not a decisive factor in taking a particular teaching assignment.

Local education funds’ research on teacher quality has placed them in new positions in their communities, with greater ability to effect policy change.

In Philadelphia in 2001, for example, research done by the Philadelphia Education Fund (PEF) played a major role in its successful efforts to convince the legislature to repeal the Pennsylvania state law imposing a residency requirement on Philadelphia teachers. The law had greatly reduced the pool of qualified teacher candidates in the District.

The number of teacher vacancies on a day-to-day basis in the Philadelphia School District dropped by more than half as a result of the policy change during the 2001-02 school year.

In Raleigh, NC, the Wake Education Partnership created the Wake Task Force on Teaching Excellence. The Task Force is now engaged in efforts to support the retention of top teachers by defining clear pathways for teacher leaders.

Thousands of community members in New York City were engaged in a process that gathered their ideas about the transformation of the city’s school system. New Visions for Public Schools has used data from those town meetings (in addition to other data sources) to begin a redesign of the teacher certification program to better train new teachers in New York’s schools.

The Public Education Foundation in Chattanooga, TN developed a set of retention strategies that revisit tenure and new teacher mentorship programs. Focus groups and town hall meetings helped to define their goal of securing adequate funding to fully support quality teaching.

Underpinning all of these funds’ work on teacher quality is a view that engagement of the community is a necessary (and typically missing) ingredient in bringing about sustained policy and practice change in public schools, resulting in higher achievement for all children.

The public needs objective and relevant data and research to inform their actions, and needs to develop the capacity to use data and research in constructive ways that advance social change. Access to data and research needs to become a part of the process of community engagement – as a way to hold school district officials accountable, to make mid-course corrections in policies and practices, and to continually build the public’s understanding about the challenges in their local schools.

In a democratic society, teaching is a public act. If teaching is to be strengthened and supported, it needs public understanding, and it must have public action.

To learn more, see PEN’s Community Action Guide to Teacher Quality, which outlines the process and steps that any organization interested in successfully investigating teacher quality and engaging the public in dialogue about the issue.

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