Pat Drago (who is a former Volusia County school district administrator) and I had a conversation about how public schools improve. She had an example from Volusia County. This was an at risk school population where nothing the district had tried seemed to work. As we talked, she mentioned a friend who was a long time principal who told her that there was one thing that made the greatest difference for her. What was it?
The ability to select her teachers. Districts may have policies to try to place teachers where they are most needed and want to be. Or, districts may allow principals latitude in teacher selection. Do you know how your district assigns, removes, trains and transfers teachers? Does it matter? I happened across a study from Stanford University about teacher assignment practices in Miami Dade School District. Four major findings are based on data over seven years:
- High value added elementary teachers transfer to high value added schools.
- More effective schools provide more equitable class assignments for novice teachers.
- More effective schools are better able to develop teachers’ ability to raise student achievement.
- More effective schools are better able to retain effective teachers.
Using FCAT data and a fixed effects model of student gain, the researchers were able to track individual student’s achievement gains from grade 3 – 10. Even though there are obvious problems with gain scores, and math gains were better predictors than reading gains in this study, the researchers found clear trends. There is strong evidence that all schools tend to place novice teachers with lower achieving students across all types of schools. This practice is less apparent in highly effective schools. The authors state that school leadership and particular school personnel practices (recruitment, assignment, development, and retention) may be a driving force in school effectiveness.
While the study did include demographic variables like race and socio economic factors, the results did not report these characteristics for effective schools. While one would hope that some effective schools were located in low income areas that serve predominately minority and/or disadvantaged children, it is not clear. What is apparent is that some Florida districts are taking the bull by the horns.
Volusia County is taking the quality of teaching and leadership seriously in its attempt to turn around Campbell Middle School in Daytona. Next year, all teachers will have to reapply for their positions. New administrators will lead the school. A partnership with Bethune College will result in a math, science magnet program at the school. Teachers who commit to the school for three years will receive an annual bonus of $2,000. The article in the Daytona-Beach News Journal did not say whether there will be a strong teacher development program as well to reduce the teacher turnover that has plagued the school in the past.
This is an example of a public school system tackling the real problems facing at risk schools. Effective principals and teachers are the building blocks of strong schools. We should track this school’s progress and learn how it implements its curriculum. How will it overcome poor student attendance, skill development, and student discipline? Good leaders and teachers, with support from the district, can find a way.