published Monday, September 26th, 2011

Georgia struggling to improve teachers’ performance

By Nancy Badertscher, Laura Diamond and Jaime Sarrio/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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Georgia has spent more than a decade taking a piecemeal and contradictory approach to improving teacher quality, with little evidence of success.

In 2000, the state eliminated job protection laws, making it easier to fire problem teachers, only to restore them three years later. Hefty raises were promised to teachers who signed up for a rigorous certification program, but were cut in 2010. The University System of Georgia will retrain struggling teacher graduates at no cost to districts, but few take advantage.

While state leaders continue to take a stop-and-go approach to funding teacher improvement efforts, students suffer academically, a troubling sign for a state that rounds out the bottom in many national education rankings. At the same time, the state’s thousands of effective teachers are lumped in with poor performers in terms of salary, training and evaluation.

A teacher can make or break a student, and studies show three years with ineffective teachers can have a lasting negative impact on a child’s education.

A monthlong investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found the state has spent billions on teacher improvement with marginal results. Among the reasons why:

• The state hasn’t figured out a way to identify and remove bad teachers. In 2011, only 628 of 114,248 teachers received unsatisfactory job evaluations.

• Georgia’s brightest students don’t become teachers. Education majors score about 50 points lower than the national average on the SAT, according to national data. Georgia’s education majors routinely scored lower on the SAT than those who major in business, math or the sciences.

• Teachers need continual training, but in 2003, the state cut funding for training by one-third and has yet to restore it. Georgia has given local school systems flexibility on how they spend state training dollars. In 2010, 30 percent of the state money was spent elsewhere by locals.

• Rewards for teachers who take steps to improve themselves have been costly and inconsistent. Georgia spends nearly $1 billion annually paying extra for teachers’ advanced degrees, without evidence of improved classroom performance or student achievement.

State Sen. Fran Millar, R-Atlanta, chairman of the Senate education committee, said making significant change is tough. It also hasn’t helped that most recent governors have all wanted to be the “education governor,” each with their own agendas, he said.

“When you are dealing with education, you are dealing with a battleship that you are trying to turn,” Millar said.

Leaders who once hoped testing would improve education are now focusing on putting better teachers in the classroom. Although there is disagreement about what defines a quality teacher, many agree the most effective teachers believe all children can learn, are able to improve student achievement and develop in kids a respect for learning.

The past several years “have seen a litany of missed opportunities, of starts and stops, of one policy step forward and two backward,” said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.

“To use an analogy some of public education’s critics are familiar with: If you ran a business like this, you would soon run it into the ground,” he said.

Georgia plans to devote at least $60 million of the $400 million federal prize called Race to the Top to improving teachers through evaluation and training. State leaders see this as a “game changer,” but some suggest even that plan isn’t aggressive enough.

Winston Taylor, a father of three from Atlanta, questions leaders’ commitment to hiring and keeping strong teachers. He’s heard administrators over the years describe their staffs as the “best of the best.”

“If they’re so good, why doesn’t Georgia have better test scores?” Taylor said. “Look at all those other states that are better than us. What do you think they’d say about our ‘best’ teachers? I don’t think those other states would allow them to walk through their school doors.”

Poor teachers remain

In Georgia, an outdated and ineffective evaluation system makes it hard to distinguish good teachers from bad. And once teachers are targeted for termination, a multi-tiered process makes it costly and slow for districts to sever ties.

For the last five years, state data shows 99 percent of Georgia’s teachers have received a positive rating on evaluations, an outcome workplace experts say is out-of-step with high-functioning organizations.

In any year, only a small number of Georgia teachers are shown the door. For example, Gwinnett County Public Schools, the state’s largest employer of teachers, did not renew the contracts of 98 teachers last school year, less than 1 percent of the district’s 10,700 teaching workforce. In the corporate world, 5 to 10 percent of employees are at risk of getting fired in any year because of performance or poor job match, said human resources expert Paul Rowson with World at Work, a nonprofit that researches best practices in workplace management.

Studies show companies that do a good job of differentiating performance tend to be more likely to meet corporate goals.

“The quickest way to lose top-performing teachers is to let them work side by side with someone who is disengaged and to reward them the same,” Rowson said.

When struggling teachers are identified, they might be placed on “professional development plans” while they work to improve, but most metro Atlanta school districts don’t track the number of teachers on these plans and can’t say how many end up losing their jobs.

Critics of Georgia’s fair dismissal law believe it is the primary reason so few teachers are fired and question the cost to the district. If a district fires a teacher who has been in the classroom for more than three years, the teacher is entitled to a dismissal hearing, which is similar to a court trial where both sides present their case. The employee can appeal that decision to the state.

Atlanta Public Schools is spending $1 million a month on salaries for more than 100 educators named in the cheating scandal who are awaiting hearings.

“There are underperforming individuals in every profession. Unfortunately, in education we make it very difficult to remove the worst teachers from the classroom, putting our children’s future at risk,” said Kelly McCutchen, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, which supports pro-market policies.

Less training on the job

In the coming years, the stakes for Georgia’s teachers will be higher than ever. Academics will be more rigorous under Common Core Standards. Teachers will be graded on a new evaluation system, which will take into account student performance and could determine their professional future. And they likely will face an increasingly diverse student population made up of students from a variety of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, each with varying needs.

Preparing educators for this new set of challenges is going to take training. But over the past decade, the state has backed away from its commitment to educate existing teachers.

Cherokee County Schools is an example of one district where professional development dollars are spread thin. The suburban system received $866,000 from the state in 2008-09, but only $321,800 last year for its 3,000 teachers and staff. Cherokee is getting a bump in federal money to carry out some Race to the Top initiatives, but hasn’t been able to dedicate local funds to training in two years, Superintendent Frank Petruzielo said.

“It is the opposite of what happens in the private sector, if you want to be more productive and efficient,” Petruzielo said.

Deeper cuts came in recent years as the state’s economic situation reached a fever pitch, with some metro systems such as DeKalb canceling all professional development days at the height of the budget crisis.

Stephanie Hirsh, executive director of Learning Forward, a Dallas, Texas-based advocacy and research group that focuses on educator training, said professional development is a crucial component to helping teachers improve.

In a 2010 Learning Forward study of access to teaching training nationwide, Georgia ranked near the bottom because most new teachers don’t have a mentor and don’t get start-of-job training. Overall, the state’s teachers get less than 17 hours annually of training related to the subject they teach, and many don’t get training on computers or in the area of student discipline.

“I think 10 years ago, Georgia was in the lead in support of professional learning, and I think it’s lost ground,” Hirsh said. “As a result, I think that’s why you see the state losing ground in terms of student achievement.”

Mixed messages

The state’s first major investment in teacher quality came more than a decade ago, with the creation of the Mentor Teacher program. The program, which records show cost taxpayers at least $11 million, officially ended in 2006. The reason: Stipends for the mentor teachers were funded, but no money was provided to school districts to create free time so mentors and new teachers could work together.

Other programs have focused on rewarding teachers who take steps to further their education. But with the bad economy, the state’s commitment to teachers who achieved national board certification has wavered, creating bitter feelings and all but killing interest in the program.

Like board-certified doctors and accountants, teachers who achieve national board certification have gone through extensive self-assessment and peer review.

At former Gov. Roy Barnes’ urging, legislators wrote into law that teachers who went through the three-year certification process would receive 10 percent raises each year during the 10-year life of the certificate. But the money to support those stipends was cut in half in 2009 and eliminated in 2010.

Consequently, interest in the program has all but evaporated.

The state’s been more consistent in doling out money for teachers who attain advanced degrees. The program, which is costing taxpayers about $800 million to $1 billion a year, is one of the most generous in the nation. And some research suggests that a teacher’s master degree alone does not improve student achievement. Last year, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urged states to reconsider rewarding teachers who seek advanced degrees.

Work is under way in Georgia to make sure the next 10 years aren’t wasted on unfocused reform. For the first time in more than a decade, the state is putting forward a comprehensive plan to rethink teacher recruitment, training, staffing and evaluations.

Race to the Top is a blueprint for sweeping change. A teacher’s performance will be heavily weighted on student academic growth. Twenty-six districts will pilot the new program, with others to follow after a four-year rollout.

Gov. Nathan Deal sees Race to the Top as a game changer.

“I think we’re on the threshold of being able to do something great in terms of education in the state of Georgia,” Deal said.

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