Austin searches for ways to improve teacher quality
Poor, minority schools at disadvantage
By Raven L. Hill
Monday, May 22, 2006
Interstate 35 essentially divides the 80,000-student Austin school district in
The western half has more affluent and higher- achieving campuses with a
relatively stable corps of veteran teachers. The east is filled with poorer,
low-performing schools that struggle to keep their teachers, mostly novice,
from year to year.
Schools in East Austin, many with large minority and low-income populations,
often have trouble hiring and keeping teachers. At LBJ High School in East
Austin, Principal Patrick Patterson is proud of senior Charles Walker's good
Lynne Lively, a bilingual teacher at Odom Elementary in Southwest Austin, says
that she has taught primarily low-income students and that teachers must
sometimes also be nurses and social workers.
Almost uniformly, the schools on the east rank near or at the bottom of district
schools on state test results.
It's not geography causing students to fail.
Teachers, second perhaps only to parents, have a profound impact on student
Their effectiveness is greatly influenced by academic preparation, certification
exam scores and years of experience. When a teacher fails to connect with
students ˜ whether it's due to inexperience or attrition because of intolerable
working conditions ˜ students suffer.
In Austin, students on the city's east side appear to suffer the most.
This is an old issue that's getting new attention as the district wrestles with
closing the achievement gap between white and minority students, as well as
among different income levels.
Though experts caution that having a stable staff of veteran teachers doesn't
guarantee good test scores, they say it definitely influences them.
According to a report issued this spring by a district task force of teachers,
principals, parents and representatives of education organizations:
-Students at struggling schools are twice as likely to see their teachers leave.
The three high schools with the greatest percentages of white students had a
cumulative five-year turnover rate of 33 percent. The three high schools with
the greatest percentages of minority students had a rate of more than 60
Overall, officials estimate that 16 percent of Austin teachers leave the
district annually. It costs the district almost $10 million a year to replace
-The gap between average teacher experience levels at predominantly minority and
poor schools and white, wealthier campuses has increased to almost five years
In 2005, the average teacher at predominantly minority schools had about 10
years of experience, virtually unchanged from five years earlier. At
predominantly white schools, teachers had almost 15 years of experience, up
from 13 years in 2000.
-Teachers with full state certification, who score high on the instruction
portion of their certification exams and have more than three years'
experience, tend to be more effective in the classroom.
Poor and minority Austin schools tend to have fewer teachers with such
achievements. About 11 percent of the faculty on elementary campuses failed an
instructional skills certification test at poor schools, compared with less
than 3 percent at their wealthier counterparts.
Ed Fuller, a researcher at the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based Center for Teaching
Quality, led the task force's study.
Fuller said Austin's gaps were surprising: "No matter what measure you look at,
there's just pretty wide disparities between the two sets of schools. Not
surprisingly, we see large disparities in student achievement."
Superintendent Pat Forgione said he plans to raise salaries in next year's
budget and make performance-based incentives part of the district's
compensation plan to help lure and retain experienced and specialty teachers.
"I believe in being very specific in your investment," Forgione said. "I would
like to find a way to incentivize doing the hard work, but I want to see
evidence of doing the hard work."
Why teachers leave
The impact of high teacher attrition rates is reflected in passing rates on the
Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.
Johnston High School lost 80 percent of its faculty last year in the wake of a
state-mandated restructuring; 20 percent of the student body passed all
sections of the state's achievement exam that year. Less than 3 percent of the
faculty at Blackshear Elementary chose to stay at the school last year; about
60 percent of students passed the TAKS.
By comparison, Kiker and Patton elementary schools retained 75 percent of their
staffs. At Patton, 85 percent of students passed the test; 92 percent passed at
Kiker. At Anderson High School, where the turnover rate was 33 percent, more
than 80 percent of students passed the TAKS.
For the district to close the achievement gap between east and west, white and
minority students, poor and wealthy ones, it will have to ensure that the
neediest students get ˜ and keep ˜ the best teachers, researchers say.
"Novice teachers have good hearts, good heads and good intentions," said Louis
Malfaro, president of Education Austin, which represents 4,000 teachers and
support staff members. "But they're not as good as those more experienced
The district's task force found that schools serving high percentages of
minority and low-income students were harder to staff because they are
generally perceived as having fewer resources, more disciplinary problems, weak
school leadership, lower test scores and higher dropout rates.
The report noted, "The students most in need of well-qualified teachers who know
the students and community well . . . and high-quality instructional resources
are the least likely to receive them."
For many teachers, the opportunity to work with the neediest students is the
reason they got into education. But even the most devoted among them are
challenged to stay.
Lynne Lively, a bilingual teacher at Odom Elementary in Southwest Austin, has
taught primarily low-income students her entire career.
Lively said teachers sometimes must be nurses and social workers as well.
"Often kids from low-income homes come from chaotic situations. You don't have
as much parent involvement. Our moms are poor. Our dads are holding down two
jobs. They may not be working," she said. "Their parents are struggling, and
they're doing the best they can."
Jo Mikels came from Mendez Middle School in Southeast Austin to teach at Small
Middle School in Southwest Austin when it opened in 1999.
Mikels said working with poor children can be overwhelming for new teachers who
expect a child to have had certain shared experiences, like going to the beach,
the zoo or restaurants that don't serve fast food.
"There may be no reference point," she said. "You have to build those
experiences in somehow. It's more challenging."
Mikels, who has been a teacher for 32 years, said she worries about teachers not
going to schools where there is the greatest need and how that contributes to
the achievement gap.
When she decided to leave Mendez, it was purely to work closer to home, she
said. "I really identify with the east side a lot. I taught just as hard there
as any other school."
An advantage of working at a school with little turnover is that teachers can
build relationships with one another, which can only help students, Mikels
said: "You know exactly what a child learns in sixth grade that can be built on
in seventh grade and eighth grade. You have time to have those discussions.
That's huge for the continuum of learning."
Can tide be turned?
Many urban districts nationwide are grappling with ways to reduce the
achievement gap and teacher turnover. Some have successfully implemented
The Wake County school system in North Carolina, which includes Raleigh and
nearby suburbs, redrew its attendance boundaries to reduce large pockets of
poor students and ensure that no school's population is more than 40 percent
economically disadvantaged. All schools became equally attractive to teachers.
Last spring, 80 percent of black students in Wake County elementary and middle
schools scored at grade level on state tests, up from 40 percent a decade ago;
91 percent of Hispanic students scored at grade level, up from 79 percent a
Economic integration might prove difficult to replicate in Austin, where many
parents vehemently oppose busing and the school system is citywide, not
countywide. Almost 60 percent of Austin students come from low-income families.
Forgione said mandating assignments would only spur teacher flight to nearby
districts that offer higher salaries and more affordable housing.
"I can't restrict where teachers will go," he said. "Our plan is to recruit
talent, hire them early and get them focused on going to the neediest schools."
Financial incentives and good working conditions can keep good teachers in poor
East Austin schools, said Fuller, an adjunct professor at the University of
The task force recommended officials give teachers a substantial pay raise next
year, on a par with fast-growing suburban competitors; give stipends to retain
veteran and in-demand teachers in math, science and bilingual education, as
well as those who work in "hard-to-staff" schools; enhance mentoring programs;
and work with principals to improve working conditions.
LBJ High School Principal Patrick Patterson said he was lured to the school last
year by a stipend.
"Were it not for that piece of it, I probably would have stayed at Lanier," he
said. "In schools like LBJ and others that are filled with traditionally
hard-to-reach kids, I'm sure that it would be an incentive for teachers."
Though he has plenty of applicants for openings, Patterson said a stipend would
help: "The quality of my applicant pool would be greatly enhanced with a
stipend. All of them aren't experienced, nor do all have experience working
with hard-to-reach populations."