When it comes to improving student performance, the primary focus should be on teachers. Match low achievers with quality teachers, research says, for the fastest and best improvement.
That is not happening in too many Austin schools. In fact, it's quite the opposite, according to studies by University of Texas researcher Ed Fuller and Education Trust, a Washington-based think tank.
The research shows that the Austin district pays teachers at schools with high degrees of poverty and large percentages of minority students less than it pays teachers at the district's wealthier, more diverse schools. And the wage gap is wider in Austin than in most other large Texas school districts.
If low-income schools were NFL teams, the rules of parity would prevail and those schools would get the top picks of talented teachers. But it doesn't work that way in the school business, where superintendents are competing with other districts for top teachers. That gives teachers especially talented and experienced ones the upper hand in negotiations.
But school districts aren't helpless in such matters. It's disappointing that the Austin district hasn't adopted tactics of some other professions by using incentives, bonuses and larger salaries to lure talented teachers to lower performing schools. We've noted before that the job at those schools is tougher, so teachers who work at those campuses deserve higher pay. But pay is primarily based on experience and that has opened a salary gap in Austin schools along racial and wealth lines.
The damage of not having an incentive system in place is obvious at several schools.
Johnston High School in East Austin lost nearly half of its teaching staff last fall. The teachers who replaced them were largely inexperienced. That kind of turnover was nothing new for the chronically low-performing high school.
Though the district is trying to slow revolving doors of Johnston and other lower-performing schools, its response has been inadequate. Starting this fall, the district will offer stipends to teachers who agree to work at the district's highest needs schools, meaning schools such as Johnston, where nine of 10 students are at risk of failing. There are nine such schools, but the stipend program will target just five of the schools.
That's a start.
But the stipends seem too small to be effective in recruiting experienced teachers who, under the program, will get $1,000 more to work in high needs schools. The incentives make sense for teachers who last more than three years at a high needs campus: They will earn $3,000 more a year.
If the district is serious about recruiting better teachers to lower performing schools, then it must offer pay or bonuses on the front end that truly reflect the difficulty of the jobs.
— Austin American-Statesman