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Wire Side Chat: The Challenges of Staffing Low-Performing Schools

Dr. Paul D. Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), talks about a recent AASA study. It shows that student progress at poor, racially-isolated schools will continue to be slow unless a way is found to recruit and then retain experienced staff. Although the problem has existed for years, requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act make finding solutions more urgent. Included: Discussion of the problems of hiring quality staff in poor, low-performing schools.

Paul D. Houston

In January, the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) released a report that addresses one of the nation's most pressing education problems, The Challenge of Attracting Good Teachers and Principals to Struggling Schools. The study, prepared by Cynthia D. Prince, issues analysis director for the AASA, notes that efforts to improve student achievement in high-poverty, low-performing schools will not succeed unless quality teachers and principals accept jobs and remain at these schools.

Dr. Paul D. Houston, executive director of the AASA, discussed the complexity of this issue and possible solutions with Education World. Houston has served as AASA executive director since 1994. In 1991, Houston received the Richard R. Green Leadership Award for his leadership in urban education.

Education World: What prompted AASA to conduct the study at this time?

Dr. Paul D. Houston: Closing the achievement gap between rich and poor is one of the most difficult problems facing school system leaders today. It isn't a new problem, but record teacher shortages, combined with increased expectations that schools will bring all students to high levels of performance, have created some very tough challenges. We know that student achievement is directly affected by the quality of students' classroom teachers. It follows that the best teachers and principals should be reserved for the schools that serve students with the greatest needs.

However, schools that serve large concentrations of poor and minority students experience the greatest difficulty attracting and keeping highly qualified teachers. The newly reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act has created an even greater sense of urgency for school system leaders to address this problem. New ESEA requirements state that all new teachers hired after the start of the 2002-2003 school year in programs funded by Title I must be highly qualified. All teachers, regardless of the funding source, must be highly qualified by the end of 2005-2006.

EW: What most surprised you about the research findings?

Houston: I think what will surprise most people who read this report is the complexity of the problem. The problem isn't primarily quantity. Experts believe that with the exception of some subject areas, the number of teachers who are certified each year is sufficient to meet demand. The problem is primarily inequitable distribution. Students who attend racially isolated schools with concentrated poverty have a much greater likelihood of having teachers who are not fully certified, who are new to the school and the profession, and who do not hold a degree in the subject they are assigned to teach.

Superintendents face numerous political and managerial dilemmas if they attempt to redistribute highly qualified teachers and principals to the schools with the greatest needs. For example, if superintendents concentrate their best teachers in the lowest-performing schools to give disadvantaged students the best chance to excel, they run the risk of alienating parents in other parts of the district who want to keep the best teachers in their own children's schools. Superintendents often meet stiff resistance from teacher and principal unions, parent organizations, and school boards if they attempt to reassign teachers and principals, even if their motives are good ones.

EW: Why has it taken so long to address the issue of having experienced teachers in struggling schools?

Houston: The problem is not new, but it has escalated in recent years because of rising student enrollments, state and local initiatives to reduce class size, impending waves of teacher retirements, and fewer students pursuing teaching careers during a time when the economy was at its strongest and many higher-paying career options were plentiful. All those factors have contributed to the teacher shortage. Less affluent schools that serve children with the greatest academic needs are finding it harder than ever before to compete for a shrinking pool of experienced, qualified teachers.

EW: What role can AASA play in changing the situation?

Houston: AASA represents more than 14,000 superintendents and other school system leaders across the country. We believe that school superintendents must be centrally involved in addressing this issue, but clearly, the solution will require collaboration -- with teachers and principals, parents, school boards, state and federal policymakers, higher education, business leaders, and many others. AASA can help raise public awareness, press for state and federal incentives that will help districts attract qualified teachers and superb principals to hard-to-staff schools, and provide superintendents with the information they need to convince communities, unions, and school boards of the necessity of shifting resources to the schools with the greatest needs.

EW: What seems like the best solution?

Houston: We don't believe that there is one best solution, but we do believe that there are a number of very promising solutions that could help districts attract and retain good teachers and principals. One solution that AASA has proposed is a federal income tax credit for fully certified teachers and principals willing to work in high-poverty, low-performing schools. Under AASA's proposed plan, teachers and principals who serve in those schools would be able to reduce their federal income tax payments by up to $4,000 a year. A number of states and districts are experimenting with policy changes and other kinds of incentives to attract and retain good teachers and principals: salary increases, bonuses, housing subsidies, tuition assistance, loan forgiveness, smaller class sizes, greater opportunities for professional development, etc. The bottom line is that we have to improve working conditions in schools that serve poor and minority students, recognize that teaching students with greater needs is a much tougher job, and reward teachers and principals accordingly.

EW: What kinds of responses to the study have you been getting from AASA members?

Houston: We are asking our members to take a quick survey on the AASA Web site after reading this paper to tell us what they think AASA should advocate to ensure that every teacher and every principal in schools serving low-income communities is highly qualified. We've received many good ideas from our members, who believe that this is the right issue and we should be addressing it as a profession.

This e-interview with Paul Houston is part of the Education World weekly Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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