Letting good teachers fix bad schools; Chattanooga’s incentives, shuffling of educators boost urban campuses

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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In 2001, Bob Corker was elected Chattanooga’s mayor, not its school superintendent.

But he knew that the future of Tennessee’s fourth-largest city was tied to its schools. And he knew that the old ways of distributing teachers – shipping the least qualified to the worst central-city schools – couldn’t last.

“In those schools, we couldn’t recruit or retain highly qualified teachers,” he said. “Actually, we couldn’t keep any teachers.”

So Mr. Corker and other Chattanooga leaders launched an effort to draw the region’s best teachers into its most troubled schools. They’re offering cold cash, free graduate school tuition, forgivable loans and other incentives. And they’re getting results.

“The most important thing in a classroom is the caliber of the teacher,” said Rebecca Everett, principal at Hillcrest Elementary School. “Before, we had to take whatever we could get. Now people want to teach here.”

It’s a model that might be of interest to some Texas school districts. An analysis by The Dallas Morning News this month found that schools with large numbers of poor and minority students are more likely than other schools to have a higher percentage of uncertified or rookie teachers. Educators say closing that gap is key to improving weak schools.

The News’ study created something called the Teacher Preparation Index to see how successfully Texas schools are hiring well-prepared teachers. The TPI rates a school on a scale from 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest), based on how many of its teachers are certified and experienced.

The study found some of the greatest disparities in large urban areas, where central-city districts such as Dallas and Houston scored well below neighboring suburban districts.

That’s the same pattern that existed for years in Chattanooga, a city of 155,000 near the borders of Georgia and Alabama. Suburban schools in Hamilton County had solid test scores, good reputations and qualified teachers. Schools closer to the urban core, meanwhile, weren’t so strong.

“What we’ve been dealing with for decades is a double standard,” said Jesse Register, superintendent of Hamilton County schools. “We’ve said it’s OK to be a substandard teacher in an inner-city school, where parents might not fuss or where there’s a lower standard.”

Making big moves

In 2000, nine of Tennessee’s 20 lowest-performing schools, all elementaries, were in Chattanooga’s central city. All were dysfunctional enough that state officials placed them “on notice” – a warning that if test scores didn’t improve, the schools faced state takeover.

That galvanized the city’s leaders – Mr. Corker, the school system, local charitable foundations and businesses – into action.

Led by the local Benwood Foundation – founded in 1944 by a Coca-Cola bottling magnate – they decided to focus all their efforts on those nine schools. They’ve been known as the Benwood schools ever since.

The leaders immediately focused on the distribution of qualified teachers. The best tended to stay away from the urban schools. Even the talented young teachers whom Benwood schools could land usually didn’t stay long.

So Dr. Register took the unusual step of asking the schools to identify their weakest teachers for a move to the suburbs.

His reasoning: “If you’ve got one or two teachers who need help in a school, you can deal with them. If you’ve got a dozen or 15, it’s overwhelming.”

Dr. Register had the authority to move teachers to the suburbs because all Hamilton County schools are governed as a single school district. He also got cooperation from teacher groups.

Eventually, 100 teachers were shipped out of the Benwood schools. The next step was luring better teachers to take their places. To identify the right ones, officials turned to Tennessee’s accountability system.

Each year, the state grades teachers based on how much their students improve their standardized test scores over the previous year.

For example: If Miss Jones’ students learn as much in one year as the state expects, she’s given a score of 100 – meaning she’s about average as a teacher. But if she’s able to squeeze a little more out of her students – say, they finish a few weeks ahead of where they should be – Miss Jones might score a 110 or 120. That means she was 10 or 20 percent more effective at boosting test scores than an average teacher.

In Chattanooga, high-quality teachers who score at least 115 are eligible for a $5,000 annual bonus – but only if they teach in one of the Benwood schools.

The perks don’t end there. A local foundation gives teachers in the Benwood schools free tuition toward a master’s degree in urban education. Local attorneys donate free legal services to Benwood teachers.

Another local foundation offers teachers a $10,000 loan toward a down payment on a house around the schools; the loans are forgiven if the teachers stay at least five years.

And if a Benwood school boosts its overall test scores enough, every teacher in the school gets another bonus of up to $2,000.

The district and private foundations also added more money to hire assistant principals and put instructional leaders in Benwood schools.

“We are pumping in every possible resource,” said Krystal Scarborough, one of two assistant principals at 400-student Clifton Hills Elementary. A Texas elementary school that size might have only one assistant principal, or none.

Enticement of incentives

Since the incentives debuted, staffing the urban schools has become much easier. A year ago, on the first day of school, there were 30 vacancies in core teaching positions at the Benwood schools, Dr. Register said. This year, there were two.

“People still give me looks: ‘Why would you leave a suburban school?'” said Kristy Bramlett, a teacher who did exactly that to move to Hillcrest Elementary. She’s taking advantage of the free tuition to get a master’s in urban education at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.

“I see myself growing more as a teacher here. It’s more of a challenge. The perspective is starting to change,” she said.

Dr. Everett, Hillcrest’s principal, said the teacher applicant pool has gotten stronger. “Teachers with higher grade-point averages, people with more training, people from different universities,” she said.

A few years ago, when Dr. Everett was principal at a different inner-city school, “I got the applications the suburban schools didn’t want. I’d be hiring people up until the day school starts.”

At Clifton Hills, where 98 percent of students are poor, finding teachers had always been a struggle.

“The reputation of the students wasn’t good – it was wild,” said fourth-grade teacher Rebecca Harper. “The teaching staff was young. There was a very unstable population in the school.”

This year, the school had to hire only two new teachers – one of them for a position that didn’t exist last year. With a corps of veterans in place, “people get into a rhythm, a routine,” Ms. Harper said. “You don’t have a new teacher who’s struggling until January just to get control of the classroom. You can focus on instruction.”

There has been a positive impact on student performance as well. On this year’s Tennessee state tests, passing rates in the Benwood schools increased more than three times as much as in the district’s suburban schools.

The percentage of third-graders reading at or above grade level increased at every Benwood school last year – in most cases by 10 percentage points or more.

But Chattanooga officials say the biggest victory might be in public perception.

One of the difficulties in attracting teachers to low-performing schools is stigma – the stench of failure that sometimes hangs over schools that people have given up on.

“Many of these teachers felt like they were on a losing football team,” Mr. Corker said. “People would ask them where they worked and they wouldn’t feel good about the answer.”

‘Issue of honor’

So a big part of the Benwood initiative is honoring the teachers willing to work in struggling schools – making them feel as distinguished as educators in the suburbs. What were once called low-performing schools became “high priority” schools. There are gatherings at the mayor’s house and a stream of plaudits.

“What seems different about Chattanooga is that issue of honor,” said Kati Haycock, executive director of the Education Trust, a nonprofit group that’s working to close the educational gap between rich and poor. “You can offer bonuses, but you really need to improve the status of these teachers. You need to celebrate these people, make a big deal about what they’re doing.”

“Teacher morale has totally changed,” Ms. Harper said.

There are a few difficulties with the Chattanooga model.

For one, it costs money. Dr. Register said he didn’t know how much the programs cost per student, but the Benwood Foundation has given $5 million. The salary bonuses, the free tuition and the extra support staff in Benwood schools cost money at a time when budgets are tight.

Dr. Register said much of the extra cash comes from making better use of the district’s federal funding. Money that used to go to computers and equipment is now “really concentrated on the classroom,” he said.

A major difference

Another problem in applying the approach in a place such as Texas: Most districts here are not governed like Hamilton County, where schools are operated as one district.

The Dallas-Fort Worth area, for example, has more than 50 school districts. When Dallas raises its teacher salaries, suburban schools typically raise their pay to match. So while Dallas pays its starting teachers more than $38,000 a year – one of the highest such salaries in Texas – the suburbs aren’t far behind. That makes it more difficult to use salary as a lure for urban schools.

Reshuffling teachers also risks alienating suburban parents, who may be accustomed to having the best teachers to themselves. Dr. Register said he hasn’t seen much of a backlash, but Ms. Scarborough said some suburban parents have taken notice.

“There is that feeling that the urban schools get everything and ‘They’ve forgotten us,'” she said. “But there are people lining up to get into suburban schools. People in the suburbs realize they can replace their teachers much more readily than we can.”

She and other educators said there’s widespread support for the shifts Chattanooga has made – not least because it’s been a local solution to a problem cities face nationwide.

“We know we can’t count on Nashville or Washington, D.C., to make these changes for us,” Ms. Scarborough said. “We know that if it’s going to get done, we have to do it ourselves.”

Scene on the street: some panic and some pluck

From Staff and Wire Reports

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NEW YORK – For the city’s residents, Thursday’s blackout brought back memories of an even darker day.

“It feels like September 11 all over again,” said Staten Island’s Giovanna Leonardo, 26, who stood in an enormous line waiting for a bus Thursday afternoon. “It’s that ‘what’s going on?’ feeling.”

What was going on was plenty of nothing: no power, no air conditioning, no traffic lights, no subways after the power went pffft at 4:11 p.m. on a steamy August day.

The Brooklyn Bridge, a main escape route from Manhattan, was again packed with Brooklynites trudging back home.

Lower Manhattan was flooded with Wall Street workers fleeing their buildings and searching for a way home. People lined up 10 and 20 deep for a few precious minutes at a pay phone. Bridges and tunnels leading into New York City were again shut down.

Thursday night, thousands of people milled outside Grand Central Station, unable to find shelter or any way out of the city. The streets near Times Square were packed as police continued to direct traffic, their flashlights reduced to glow-sticks as the batteries grew weak. Radio reports said benches in Central Park were at a premium.

Even New Yorkers who have long taken pride in their ability to adapt to anything were shaken.

Pauline Palmer, 33, a supervisor for a pension fund, said that in some ways, the blackout was worse than 9-11.

“People we dying – that was worse,” she said. “But at least you could get out of Manhattan.”

At the Port Authority bus terminal, waves of confused commuters were met by a small contingent of harried police officers trying, vainly, to push everyone back out.

“Where are we supposed to go?” one man shouted angrily, his buttoned-down shirt drenched with sweat. “There are a hundred thousand people out there on the street.”

“What do you want from me?” an officer shouted back, leaning into the man’s reddened face. “I didn’t cause this blackout. Now turn around and get out of the building.”

One middle-aged woman collapsed and stopped breathing after walking down many flights of stairs inside the darkened Met Life Building. The paramedics tried desperately to call for an ambulance. There were none to be found amid the sudden chaos. She lay there for more than half an hour, her body growing cold, in a dimly lit corner of Cafe Centro. The paramedics never gave up. Yet by the time an ambulance could be flagged down, it was too late.

The woman, whose identity was not disclosed pending notification of her family, was pronounced dead at St. Clare’s Hospital in Manhattan.

Of those who could make it out, some went to bars and found pleasure in the fellowship, the booze and the cigarette smoke, nevermind the city’s new smoking ban.

“Everyone who was working left their job and went to a bar,” said Dallas native Linda Rodriguez, a Columbia graduate student who spent the evening night near an open fire hydrant as neighbors danced in the spray. “It’s absolutely like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s a huge party.”

Like the city’s residents, the free market adapted quickly. Stores inflated prices on deodorant and toothbrushes, and lines were up to a block long wherever a street vendor could be found selling anything from warm water to hot dogs.

But some grocery stores, seeing their inventory melting, started hawking ice creams at half price.

The only lights on Broadway came from cars, casting thousands of New Yorkers in silhouette as they tramped home, and oddly, from cellphones that pedestrians used as flashlights.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as the sun set, promised things would look brighter by sunrise.

“Tomorrow, we’ll be back up to business as usual,” the mayor said. Shortly after 9 p.m., power was already returning in part of the Bronx.

Even the delis were forced to adapt. Near midtown Manhattan, several moved their suddenly unrefrigerated food from the deli case to ice-filled buckets.

“Half price on everything,” one sign read. Other deli workers simply gave away their slowly spoiling goods.

Within two hours, police and firefighters had searched the city’s major high-rise buildings and were fairly sure no one was trapped. Within a few hours, the city’s subways were evacuated.

“Y2K finally happened, people!” cried a young man walking up Broadway, stutter-stepping through the crowd. On Sixth Avenue, a man, walking down a center traffic lane, said to his friend, “This is like in those movies, man, when a bomb drops or something and you have to live off the land.”

In Times Square, all the neon lights were dark.

Calm appeared to prevail, though so did bewilderment and tension. There were no reports of panic or looting.

Mr. Bloomberg quickly assured New Yorkers that terrorism was not involved – the first thought that occurred to Manhattan hair stylist Renato Vasconcelos.

“This is just too weird,” he said.

Manhattan streets were flooded with pedestrians, most of whom had no idea how they might get home to Brooklyn or Queens, New Jersey or Connecticut. The north-south avenues in Manhattan held more traffic and were better lit than the crosstown canyons, where skyscrapers blocked ambient light.

“Westchester for $,” read a sign held by one woman standing near Gov. George Pataki’s East Side office, headed for the suburbs.

“I don’t know how I am going to get home,” said Marjorie Mitchell, 26, a bank worker in Lower Manhattan who lives in suburban White Plains. “The trains are dead. My cell is dead. This is absolutely frightening.”

A man who managed to get a cellphone signal worried aloud into the phone about the potential for melting ice and rotting meat. Another man on lower Broadway complained to a police officer about a vendor immediately boosting the price of bottled water from $1 to $2.

Perhaps that was a bargain. Another vendor wanted $5 for “ice-cold water” – and the bottles were hot. On 125th Street near Lenox Avenue, a young man walked around offering “flashlights – $25; batteries – $10.”

In Lower Manhattan, people wandered the streets in a scene reminiscent of the World Trade Center attacks. At some intersections, pedestrians stood directing traffic. In residential areas, neighbors fetched candles and hung out on sidewalks, in a sort of “get to know your neighbor” night.

Many businesses were forced to shut down early, their cash registers and lights rendered impotent by the massive outage.

Power went out in all five boroughs as well as the suburbs in the worst outage to strike the nation’s largest city since 1977, when electricity disappeared for 25 hours.

Buses were packed past capacity, and with good reason: They were among the only places in the city where the air conditioning was still blowing. At some stops, two people would get off and 20 would struggle to get on.

Staff writers Todd J. Gillman and Dorothy Griffith in New York and Joshua Benton in Dallas contributed to this report.

Will they get in? Five fake kids apply to five real colleges

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Each spring, millions of letters arrive in the mailboxes of high school seniors. Some are thin and panic-inducing. Others are fat and party-starting. But not many students ever find out how their college applications went down the path to acceptance or denial.

To offer some insight to the thinking of college admissions officers, we created five fake high school seniors and had them “apply” to five real universities. Admissions officers at the schools, all competitive private universities, agreed to evaluate the applications as though they were real and comment on strengths and weaknesses of candidates. Ultimately, the officials were asked to “accept” or “reject” each one.

As it turned out, most of our made-up college hopefuls ended up with some decent options. One got into every school, including Yale University. One, however, will be digging deep on her backup list.

The colleges and admissions officers who cooperated in our experiment and who are quoted below: Jay Evans, director of admissions at Austin College; Ray Brown, dean of admissions at Texas Christian University; Chris Ellertson, dean of admissions and financial aid at Trinity University; Julie Browning, dean for undergraduate enrollment at Rice University; and Richard Shaw, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid at Yale.

A summary of their verdicts appears here; for more complete information – including the text of the students’ recommendations and essays they submitted – check out our education page on DallasNews.com at http://www.dallasnews.com/localnews/education/.

Jacob
Sunset High School, Dallas

SAT I: 530 Math, 510 Verbal
SAT II: 590 World History, 740 Spanish Reading, 580 Literature
GPA: 3.93 (unweighted); two AP classes, four honors classes
Class rank: 6th of 238
Race: Hispanic
Future plans: Undecided major; business career
Family: Mother is a hotel receptionist, father a construction foreman
Extracurriculars: Senior class president; limited roles in Key Club and drama club
Work: Worked 10-15 hours a week and on construction sites in summer
Summary: A mature, well-liked kid who works hard and gets sterling grades – only one B in four years. His disadvantaged background will also work in his favor, but will relatively low SAT scores hold him back?

THE VERDICT

Austin College: Admit. “I’d be more concerned about the test scores if he were pre-med or something similar. … I wished he’d gotten involved in extracurriculars earlier on in high school. … He could be like a Pied Piper for Sunset: If he comes here, other students from the school may follow him.”

Rice: Wait list. “He is Mr. Potential, a diamond in the rough. Every admissions officer loves those…. His test scores are a little disconcerting … it’s a high school we rarely see applications from at Rice.”

TCU: Admit. “If Spanish is spoken at home, I see the high Spanish Reading score as more reflective of his abilities than his low boards. … I thought his essay was terrific – it ends up someplace other than where you expect. … I like that the recommendations and interviewer talk about his maturity. That’s increasingly rare to see, particularly with boys.”

Trinity: Deny. “He’s obviously got good academic performance … we wouldn’t want to penalize him too much for the extracurriculars because he had to work. … The test score would hurt him … with those scores, you’d want to really see rigorous course preparation, and it seems that he didn’t take the most difficult load he could.”

Yale: Deny. “Jacob has done well coming from a tough living environment. … His rank is strong, but we consider in our context rigor to be second tier. … His essay may suggest that he is still working on self-esteem. … His motivation for school is more practical and less intellectual.”

Emily
The Hockaday School, Dallas

SAT I: 800 Math, 730 Verbal
SAT II: 790 Physics, 750 Chemistry, 700 Literature
GPA: 3.94 (unweighted), five AP and five honors classes
Rank: 2nd of 71
Race: Black
Future plans: Physics major, physicist career
Family: Mother is a secretary
Extracurriculars: President of the science club, assistant editor of the school newspaper
Work: Tutoring, two-three hours a week
Summary: She’s got great test scores, great grades, and comes from a disadvantaged background. Her recommendations are full of praise. But she’s a bit shy, and she flubbed the interview.

THE VERDICT

Austin College: Admit. “Being the first generation to go to college is meaningful. … I felt her essay was a little long – it could have been condensed. … She has the stick-to-it-iveness the other applicants lacked. … I felt she was very realistic in her goals. She wants to be a physicist, and her academic background supports that she can do that. …Women in science are certainly in demand.”

Rice: Admit. “Knowing her school, she’s been an academically competitive environment and thrived in it. … The fact she’s African-American with these test scores and these goals leaves her in a very small group of students in the country. … We wish she had stronger interpersonal skills, but her academic strengths trump that.”

TCU: Admit. “I’m going to shower Emily with gifts – I love this girl. … Life has stacked a huge deck against her, and she’s entering an unbelievably male-dominated field. … She could have more leadership. … The interview doesn’t look great, but she’s articulate when it comes to what she’s passionate about.”

Trinity: Admit. “Emily is a gem … she’s got everything. Obviously she brings diversity. She’s a superb student. … She’s got an appealing story: the single mother fighting for her daughter to get into a place like Hockaday. … Her interview seemed painful. It wouldn’t prevent her from being accepted, but it didn’t look as though either party enjoyed it.”

Yale: Admit. “Immediate plus as a woman in physics, with the grades and tests to back it up. … Her academic profile is absolutely in range with our expectations and course and rigor are tops. … We feel some assurance that she knows exactly who she is, and frankly may well grow a great deal when given the opportunity to be in a very diverse college student body.”

Jennie
Highland Park High School, Highland Park

SAT I: 630 Math, 630 Verbal
SAT II: 590 World History, 670 French Reading, 600 Literature
GPA: 3.13 (unweighted), no honors or AP classes
Rank: 181st of 396
Race: White
Future plans: Pre-med or pre-law
Family: Mother is an attorney, father a corporate vice president
Extracurriculars: Dabbled in a few activities (French club, JV volleyball) and was homecoming queen, but nothing showing commitment
Work: None
Summary: Jennie’s popular, and she has solid SATs. But how will her privileged background and lackluster academic and extracurricular performance fare?

THE VERDICT

Austin College: Deny. “She didn’t stick with anything for very long. … Her curriculum bothers me. Her extracurriculars bother me … no AP or honors – that’s just shooting yourself in the foot for selective schools. … She took the easy way out in high school. I got the impression she’s a bit of a bubblehead.”

Rice: Deny. “The SAT scores indicate she simply isn’t acting on the potential she has. … I bet she had access to SAT test preparation. … She does seem likeable and popular, but that’s not enough … at a high school with academic resources like hers, you really need to take advantage of them to be a strong candidate here.”

TCU: Deny. “Jennie is the most privileged of the bunch, and that means the expectations for her are the highest. … Her parents will cry foul, but the reality is you have to evaluate her within the context of other applicants with fewer privileges. … Her personal statement had problems.”

Trinity: Deny. “From Highland Park, it’s inexcusable not to take more demanding courses. … Her test score would be competitive. … She does have potential, but she’s coasted on it … a school’s going to have to take a risk on her. She may come on in college and be a fine student. Or she may just continue like this for four years and the rest of her life, coasting.”

Yale: Deny. “There is no rigor in the curriculum … no intellectual fire, coasting. … It seems that she lives in shadow of a powerfully memorable brother. … Her essay is enjoyable to read but I wonder whether it is her work, given the testimony of the English teacher in a recommendation… she is very social and less engaged intellectually.”

Robert

MacArthur High School, Irving
SAT I: 590 Math, 540 Verbal
SAT II: 590 Physics, 720 Chinese Reading, 600 Literature
GPA: 3.37 (unweighted), no honors or AP classes.
Rank: 139th of 456
Race: Asian
Future plans: Political science major; professional soccer or law career
Family: Mother is a bank teller, father an engineer
Extracurriculars: Four years of varsity soccer, including team captain and second-team all-state as a senior; active in Campus Crusade for Christ
Work: None
Summary: He’s a borderline Division I soccer talent, but his grades have come in an unchallenging curriculum. His recommendations focus on his generosity and kindness, not his academic skills.

THE VERDICT

Austin College: Wait list. “He’s in the middle range of a lot of the students we see. We see a lot of students who score where he scores and ranks where he ranks. … His soccer skills wouldn’t help him get in, but it does help him that he had some leadership there. … His essay is obviously emotional for the writer, but not all readers will see it the same way.”

Rice: Deny. “His curriculum choices are very disappointing, given the opportunities for AP or honors work at his school. … His recommendations talked about him as a person, his focus on helping others, that he’s a good citizen. But they weren’t praising his intellectual potential or ambition.”

TCU: Admit. “I love that he speaks Chinese at home. Robert’s going to take kids home for spring break, and he’s going to introduce those kids to a lot of different cultural experiences. … We just eliminated our soccer team so that’s not an issue. … I give him a lot of credit for having the guts to write an essay that’ll have some admissions people rolling their eyes and saying, ‘Here’s a Bible thumper.'”

Trinity: Deny. “No APs or honors, that’s what did him in … in course rigor, in SAT scores, in GPA, he’d be in the bottom quartile of our applicant pool. … He does show some potential in the writing sample, very descriptive and vivid … I like that he’s involved in just a couple activities, but he’s dedicated and a leader in both.”

Yale: Deny. “Ouch … rank and test scores would screen him out in the Yale pool even if he were a recruited soccer player. … The extracurricular profile is all soccer joined by an almost overzealous testimony about his friend’s religious conversion. … The difficulty with the essay is that we really do not know a lot more about him.”

Kristie
Plano Senior High School, Plano

SAT I: 580 Math, 690 Verbal
SAT II: 640 U.S. History, 700 Spanish Reading, 680 Literature
GPA: 3.21 (unweighted), one AP class, two honors classes
Rank: 198th of 797
Race: White
Future plans: Music major; professional oboist
Family: Father is a surgeon; mother is a concert violinist
Extracurriculars: lots of music, including first-chair oboe in All-State Orchestra all four years of high school
Work: A summer job at TCBY
Summary: Middling grades (even a couple C-pluses), but she’s the best oboe player Texas has seen in years. Recommendations rave about her skill. Will her pretty-good SATs be enough?

THE VERDICT

Austin College: Admit. “I’m worried about her math – we may admit her on the condition that she do some summer work at a community college. … She’s not well rounded at all, and I would have wanted her to take a more rigorous curriculum … for many selective schools, it may come down to: Is this a good year for attracting oboists to campus?”

Rice: Deny. “Our music program is extremely competitive, and we don’t see evidence that she’s truly national caliber. … We might only have space for one oboist in a freshman class … if she auditioned for us and really was amazing, she might be an admit, but her academic record isn’t strong enough.”

TCU: Admit. “Some other schools wouldn’t take her, but music is huge here at TCU. … Is she too narrow? Perhaps, but if you get a lot of people on a campus who are that focused on something, you get an interesting group. … Very clearly, she’s an academic slacker … but the music gives evidence she has a terrific work ethic there.”

Trinity: Admit. “Her academic record is adequate at best … coming from Plano, she’s got the resources to take a more challenging course load, but she hasn’t … but the musical talent would be enough that we’d probably admit her. … She could do the work academically … some of these students, you have trouble finding out what they’re passionate about – you know what Kristie’s passionate about.”

Yale: Deny. “Quite one dimensional but to a high level. … Taking a particular strength and pursuing it to a high level is positive, but we see in her application that she does it to the exclusion of other engagement in and outside the classroom. … The interview concludes she doesn’t seem excited about her subjects – not a good testimony for a candidate applying to a liberal arts college … a conservatory might be the best bet.”

The Colleges

Austin College, Sherman
% of applicants accepted: 72
SAT I score for middle 50% of students accepted: 1160-1320

Rice University, Houston
% of applicants accepted: 23
SAT I score for middle 50% of students accepted: 1330-1490

Texas Christian University, Fort Worth
% of applicants accepted: 64
SAT I score for middle 50% of students accepted: 1050-1290

Trinity University, San Antonio
% of applicants accepted: 64
SAT I score for middle 50% of students accepted: 1220-1390

Yale University, New Haven, Conn.
% of applicants accepted: 11.4
SAT I score for middle 50% of students accepted: 1400-1580

Range of school data sources as close as a click

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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How well are kids learning at your child’s school? There’s probably no simple answer.

But in an era of standardized testing and school accountability systems, there’s plenty of data to provide at least some objective answers for public school parents. (Private school parents should also ask their principals for available data.) But remember, some of the most important factors about your school don’t show up in charts. Like anything else, there’s no real substitute for walking into a school and seeing for yourself. Data, however, can provide a starting point. Here’s where to go:

Academic Excellence Indicator System
www.tea.state.tx.us/perfreport/aeis

Burrow into this site and find your school. The Texas Education Agency Web site will have you swimming in data, from ratings and teacher experience to ethnic and racial diversity. You can see how students fared on state tests by grade level, by race and by socio-economic status.

There’s a lot here, including:

*Concerned about your school’s dropout rate? Don’t look at the official state-reported dropout rates. Instead, look at “Students By Grade.” Compare the number of 12th-graders in the most recent year with eighth-grade enrollment four years earlier. If there’s a big gap, it can be a clue to a problem. *Check teacher salaries – the best teachers are often lured to districts that pay more.

*Look at “Budgeted Operating Expenditure Per Pupil” to see how much money a school is spending per student.

*Check class sizes.

Teacher Preparation Index (TPI)
www.dallasnews.com/localnews/education/

Ever wondered how prepared your school’s teachers are? The Dallas Morning News calculates the teacher preparation index from state data to determine the certification and experience level of teachers.

The index rates all Texas schools in three categories: 1. What percentage of teachers are certified? 2. What percentage are certified and work in their specialty area? 3. What percentage have less than two years of experience?

Just for the Kids (JFTK)
www.just4kids.org

Just for the Kids is a nonprofit research group founded by Dallas attorney Tom Luce. It has struck a deal with the TEA that allows the group access to complete state records on students. That lets it push the data through a variety of algorithms, formulas and other things too complex for most of us to understand.

JFTK’s basic theory hangs on something called the opportunity gap. The idea is to measure the gap between how well a school performs and how well the best similar schools perform.

You might find that your “exemplary” suburban high school, highly rated by the state, doesn’t fare as well in the JFTK model. The JFTK Web site can be confusing, but you’ll find it’s worth your time.

GreatSchools.net
www.dallasnews.com/greatschools

GreatSchools.net’s strength is pulling together data from disparate sources and making it intelligible to the average reader. It’s not nearly as ambitious as Just for the Kids; it’s mostly a well laid-out compendium of things you could find elsewhere, including the TEA and JFTK sites. Full disclosure: The News has an arrangement with GreatSchools.net to use its data on our Web site.

Across the state, a teacher divide; Study: Veteran, certified educators aren’t going where they’re needed

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Poor kids. Kids who can’t speak English well. Kids stuck in low-performing schools.

Often, they’re the students most in need of highly qualified, experienced teachers.

But according to a new statewide analysis by The Dallas Morning News, they’re also the students least likely to have them.

The study found that schools serving large numbers of poor and minority students have fewer experienced teachers and fewer who are certified in the subjects they teach.

It also found that the higher a school is rated on the state’s accountability scale, the more likely its students are taught by well-prepared, veteran teachers.

“Sadly, it’s the same pattern that you see nationally,” said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based education reform group. “We take the kids who are really the most dependent on their teachers for academic learning and systematically assign them our weakest teachers.”

The analysis, using data from the State Board for Educator Certification, rated more than 7,000 Texas public schools based on how many of their teachers are certified and experienced. Based on the data, each school is given a Teacher Preparation Index rating from 1 to 10. (For more detail on how these ratings were derived, see box on Page 27A.)

The TPI allows analysis of how certified, veteran teachers are distributed across the state. Among the findings:

* Schools whose student bodies are more than 90 percent white have an average TPI of 6.3. For schools that are almost entirely Hispanic, that average was 4.6. For blacks, the number was 3.4.

* A similar pattern arose for schools with large numbers of poor students and those serving many students with difficulty speaking English.

* Schools that did better on state standardized tests tend to have more certified and experienced teachers. For example, schools that the state rates as “exemplary” – its highest rating – averaged a TPI of 6.4. Schools rated “low-performing” averaged 3.5.

* As a district, the Dallas schools had a TPI of 2.0, the lowest of the state’s major urban districts and fourth-lowest in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

“One of the goals of our district is a fully certified workforce,” said Willie Crowder, DISD’s associate superintendent for human resource services. “We’re making progress, and we’re working toward that goal.”

Some critics would call the unequal distribution of qualified teachers inefficient, or even unjust. But soon it also will be a violation of federal law.

No Child Left Behind, the federal education bill signed into law last year, requires states and districts to ensure that poor and minority students are not taught disproportionately by “unqualified, out-of-field, or inexperienced teachers.”

Based on the TPI analysis, many Texas districts have a lot of work to do to meet that goal.

“Everybody is chasing after the same pool of qualified teachers,” said Hurst-Euless-Bedford ISD Superintendent Gene Buinger, whose district had a TPI of 7.0, one of the region’s highest. “But not everyone can get them. It has tragic consequences for youngsters.”

Supply and demand

For years, educators have talked about Texas’ teacher shortage.

There are still more people who want to teach than slots to put them in. Even medium-size districts often get applications from hundreds or thousands more teachers than they have positions to fill.

But there is a shortage of certified and experienced teachers.

The result is a marketplace that would make economist Adam Smith proud. Schools compete fiercely for the most sought-after teachers: the ones with solid track records and those in subjects such as math, science or bilingual education that face tighter job markets.

Many teachers get their first jobs in places some consider – rightly or wrongly – less desirable, often because pay is low or the students are considered more difficult to teach. When they’ve spent a few years learning their trade and gaining experience, they move on to more desirable grounds.

The TPI analysis indicates that, in the Dallas area, those “starter schools” are often central city campuses or schools in southern Dallas County districts such as DeSoto and Lancaster.

Those schools, beset by high numbers of inexperienced, uncertified teachers, typically scored poorly in the analysis. Lancaster ISD earned the lowest possible rating, 1.0, in part because more than half of its teachers are not certified in the subjects they teach.

DeSoto has a districtwide TPI of 1.3.

“Without any reservation, I can tell you that our biggest challenge, our biggest obstacle to reaching excellence has been teacher quality and teacher quantity,” DeSoto Superintendent Jim Hawkins said.

Dr. Hawkins said nearly a third of the district’s teachers leave every year, often for other Dallas-Fort Worth schools. DeSoto pays starting teachers $32,000 a year – more than $6,000 less than many other area districts.

“We get them here, we train them, we get them certified,” Dr. Hawkins said. “But we’re kind of the bottom of the food chain in Dallas County. They go off to another district. It’s two steps forward, one back.”

Up the food chain

To understand the teacher food chain, follow the career of Trisha Salazar.

When she graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington 10 years ago, Ms. Salazar hoped to work in H-E-B ISD – and was flat-out rejected. Jobs in the Tarrant County district are some of the most sought-after in the region.

“I could barely get an interview,” Ms. Salazar said.

Instead, she took a job teaching English at a southern Dallas County middle school. It didn’t pay much ($19,000 a year), and she said the school didn’t treat teachers with respect. There were discipline problems, and her class size hit 35.

As a result, teachers churned in and out of the school: When Ms. Salazar left after two years to have her first child, she was one of about 20 teachers quitting.

That school’s TPI score is 1.3, one of the region’s lowest and a sign of the problems it has holding teachers.

Last year, more than half its teachers were not fully certified in the subjects they taught.

After a year off, Ms. Salazar tried again to catch on in H-E-B. Again, she was rejected. But she landed a spot at another middle school, one with a TPI of 2.0. Ms. Salazar said the school was “full of teachers on emergency certification. They didn’t know what they were doing.”

She quit again when her second child was born. She did some tutoring at a nearby elementary school (TPI: 2.3) and saw teachers she wouldn’t wish on her children’s enemies.

“There was one lady who had been teaching three years uncertified,” Ms. Salazar said. “She’d taken the test the ExCET test, then required for state certification three times and she couldn’t pass. She was the poorest teacher I’d ever witnessed.”

The woman wasn’t brought back for a fourth year, Ms. Salazar said. “But three years of kids had to suffer through her.”

All throughout this span, Ms. Salazar kept asking H-E-B officials about jobs. But openings were rare. “The schools have such a good reputation that I figured they must be doing something right,” she said. “They’re so selective because so many people want to get in here.”

She has finally landed a job at Spring Garden Elementary (TPI: 9.0), where she will teach language arts to sixth-graders. Unlike her previous schools, which had to hire teachers by the dozen each year, Spring Garden had only one opening this year.

Staying put

That kind of stability, many educators say, is key to getting strong academic performances out of kids.

“The teachers who are here just enjoy being here,” said Pamela Day, principal of Fort Worth’s Charles Nash Elementary. “We’re like a family here. We’re all focused on educating these kids.”

Nash serves a highly disadvantaged student body. Eighty-seven percent of the students are poor, 93 percent are minorities and 33 percent speak a language other than English.

But it also has received a “recognized” rating, the state’s second-highest. Its TPI is 8.3, reflecting its low rate of teacher turnover.

“The people who come here stay – they don’t move to other schools,” Ms. Day said. “The teachers all know the curriculum and how we teach here. They’ve been through all the pendulum swings in education, and they can draw on their own previous experiences.”

This year, Ms. Day has only two openings. One teacher decided to become a missionary; another retired. Both spots will be filled with certified teachers, she said.

But The News’ study indicates that places such as Nash, where poor and minority students are taught by an almost entirely certified and experienced teaching corps, are not the norm in Texas.

It’s not the first time the trend has been noticed. A June analysis by the State Board for Educator Certification found that schools where more than three-quarters of students are black have twice as many uncertified teachers as schools where less than one-quarter are black. A similar, although smaller, gap exists for Hispanics.

The gaps are even more stark if one looks only at core academic subjects such as English and math. The certification board study found schools that were mostly black had four times as many uncertified teachers in those subjects than schools with few blacks.

Even when teachers remain in the same school district, transfer rules often allow good teachers to leave schools where working conditions are more challenging for schools where the work is easier.

“Unfortunately, in education, your status flows not from how good a teacher you are, but from how elite the kids you teach are,” Ms. Haycock said. “The teachers who should get fired get hidden in low-income schools instead. The teachers who can transfer to a better school do.”

Out-of-field teaching

Education researchers rarely find points of universal agreement; conflict and contradiction are the rule. But they do largely agree that teachers who have strong knowledge of their subject area tend to produce better results in their students.

In other words, if your biology teacher really understands biology, you’ll probably learn more than if he doesn’t know an artery from an arthropod without the textbook in front of him.

But even when schools do manage to attract certified teachers, instructors often are given assignments they’re not properly prepared for. The problem is called out-of-field teaching.

“It’s kind of a no-brainer that it’s a bad idea, but principals keep doing it,” said Richard Ingersoll, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a leading authority on out-of-field teaching.

About 3 million American high school students are taught core academic subjects each year by teachers who have neither a college major nor minor in the field, he said.

Dr. Ingersoll became interested in the subject through his own experience – he spent six years as a high school history teacher. He remembers once getting a memo from his principal five days before school started: “I was told, ‘There’s been a change: You’ll be teaching some algebra.'”

He had no experience teaching math. He hurriedly begged his math colleagues for worksheets and teaching hints. He tried his best, but he knows his students didn’t get what they deserved.

“Teaching math takes different skills than teaching English or history,” said Dr. Ingersoll, who also ended up teaching English and special education during his brief teaching career.

He said that he, like other teachers ill-prepared for their classes, struggled to keep up: working late every night just to stay a half-chapter ahead of his students.

“If you don’t know what you’re doing, there’s a heck of a lot of trial and error,” he said. “The students end up being the guinea pigs.”

Experts differ on certification’s impact

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 26A

The Dallas Morning News’ analysis of state data shows that schools with lots of disadvantaged kids are likely to have high percentages of uncertified teachers.

But does that matter?

The researchers seem to think so. Most education research on the subject indicates a link between teacher certification and student performance. Still, some researchers say uncertified teachers are just as good as their more highly trained peers.

“There’s just absolutely no evidence that certification raises student achievement,” said Kate Walsh, executive director of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a group that advocates allowing more people to be teachers.

At issue is the effectiveness of alternative certification, or alt-cert, programs. While they can vary substantially, most programs put prospective teachers through several months of night or weekend classes in which they learn the basics of the profession.

That’s substantially less training than most educators get through traditional certification, when they typically take college courses on teaching methods and do some form of student teaching – often a full semester or more.

“We provide the nuts and bolts to be able to survive in the classroom,” said Brenda Kihl, who runs the alternative certification program at Collin County Community College. “That’s pretty much all an alternative program can do.”

Life experiences

Advocates of alt-cert say people who become teachers via this shortened path are just as prepared. They point out that many teachers who take that route are older and bring useful life and workplace experiences.

“The traditional system isn’t one that attracts teachers of high academic ability,” Ms. Walsh said. “We ought to let principals make their own decisions on who to hire.”

Most teachers who go through alt-cert programs receive a probationary certificate for their first year in the classroom. If they can pass the state certification exams, they usually are upgraded to a standard certificate after one year.

Several budding teachers who are going through that process said they feel qualified to teach, even with less experience.

Anthony Thomas is a former telecom engineer who’s enrolled in the Collin County program. He’ll be teaching algebra at Dallas’ Hillcrest High School this fall.

“I know the material,” he said. “I have the life experience, and I can communicate with these kids.”

Evidence from studies

But there’s evidence, from Texas and elsewhere, that while there are exceptions, uncertified teachers typically produce less student achievement.

Earlier this month, Texas’ State Board for Educator Certification released its own study. Researchers looked at about 25,000 Texas middle school students and how they performed on the math section of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test.

After taking into account a variety of student and teacher factors, such as student poverty, teacher experience and others, the study found that students in the classrooms of certified teachers produced substantially higher math scores than those with uncertified teachers.

In a study published last year, two Arizona researchers studied the academic performance of more than 4,000 students. The findings: Students in a fully certified teacher’s classroom learned about 20 percent more in a school year than other teachers.

That’s the equivalent of two months of instruction – a total that can pile up in schools where students are likely to get uncertified teachers for multiple years.

Those who say certification isn’t important argue that the traditional system sets up unnecessary barriers that keep qualified individuals from entering the classroom. But others say they’re devaluing the merits of training.

“Would you hire an uncertified accountant?” said Richard Ingersoll, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies teacher preparation. “Would you get your teeth done by someone who didn’t go to dental school? It’s a no-brainer that training helps. It’s not a guarantee of quality, but it helps.”

TPI: Q&A, Methodology, and How to become a teacher in Texas

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Questions and answers about TPI

Q: My child’s school has a low TPI. What does that mean?

A: It means that, compared with other schools in Texas, your school doesn’t have as many experienced, certified teachers teaching in their fields of specialty. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad school. But schools with low TPIs tend, on average, to produce lower test scores as reflected in state accountability ratings. If your school has trouble attracting and keeping qualified teachers, it may be worth asking why that’s the case. It might be because your principal is choosing more inexperienced teachers; it also might be because experienced teachers would rather work somewhere else.

Q: Are uncertified, out-of-field, or inexperienced teachers necessarily bad?

A: No. There are some great rookie teachers ? and some awful veteran teachers. But research does indicate that, on average, students do better when they’re taught by teachers with at least a couple years of classroom experience. Research also seems to support that teachers who know their subject material well and teachers who are certified produce better results with kids. Some researchers and policy analysts disagree.

Q: If my school has a low TPI, does that mean my child is being taught by an underqualified teacher?

A: No. Even schools with very low TPIs and large numbers of uncertified, rookie teachers also have many experienced teachers. Just because your school scores poorly doesn’t necessarily mean your child’s teacher will be less well-prepared ? it just means the odds are greater. You can check up on a teacher’s certification at the State Board for Educator Certification Web site.

What is the Teacher Preparation Index (TPI)?

To come up with the Teacher Preparation Index (TPI) for Texas schools, The Dallas Morning News gathered data for the 2002-03 school year from the State Board for Educator Certification. SBEC tracks the qualifications of all public educators in Texas.

The analysis focused on three areas for each school:

What percentage of teachers are certified in the subjects they’re teaching? (“% certified, in field”)

What percentage of teachers have any sort of full credential, even if it’s not in the subject they’re teaching? (“% certified”)

What percentage of teachers have at least two years of classroom experience? (“% 2 or more years”)

The data were matched with demographic information supplied by the schools to the Texas Education Agency for the 2001-02 school year. There were about 400 schools for which the state reported incomplete data in that year. In most cases, that’s because the schools were too new or they were small alternative schools that enroll students for only part of the year. Those schools were eliminated from the analysis.

What remained were 7,145 schools. The schools were ranked from top to bottom statewide by percentage of teachers who qualified in each of three areas in the analysis. Schools in the top 10 percent of each area were given a rating of 10. The next 10 percent were given a 9, and so on. Schools in the bottom 10 percent in each area were given a 1.

Each school’s Teacher Preparation Index was then calculated by averaging its ratings in the three areas of analysis.

For example: In School X, 100 percent of teachers are certified and working in the field they are teaching. In addition, 100 percent have at least two years’ experience. That means School X finishes in the top 10 percent of Texas schools and gets a 10 rating in all three categories. Its TPI is 10.0.

Because the ratings go from 1 to 10 instead of 0 to 10, the statewide average TPI is 5.5.

For purposes of the TPI, only teachers possessing a standard teaching certificate are counted as certified. Other credentials ? including probationary certificates, emergency permits, one-year certificates, and non-renewable permits ? are temporary ways for teachers to be allowed into classrooms while they work toward standard certificates. This is the same definition of “certified” that SBEC uses in its own research and analyses.

For the purposes of determining who teaches “in field,” SBEC determines the portion of a teacher’s class day spent teaching in his or her specialty. For example: A certified math teacher who spends half a day teaching social studies is credited as being half in-field and half out-of-field.

One caveat: SBEC makes one exception to requirements that say teachers must be certified in the field they’re teaching. Educators who are certified as elementary school teachers may teach a middle-school subject, and be counted as in-field, if they have 18 hours of college coursework in the subject area. However, SBEC does not require schools to report when elementary teachers are used in this way. The result is that for some middle schools, the number of in-field teachers may be slightly higher than in the SBEC data used to determine TPI. Officials said this exception to the in-field requirement is used by less than 5 percent of the state’s middle-school teachers.

How to become a teacher in Texas

There are several paths to becoming a certified teacher. They all require teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and to pass a state certification test, but they can differ widely beyond that. Here are two of the most common paths:

The Traditional Path

Some people know they want to be teachers from their first day of kindergarten. For those, there’s the traditional path. Those people go to college and major in the academic field they hope to teach in. They also take a series of courses in educational theory, teaching methods and techniques related to instruction in their chosen field. Most do some sort of student teaching. When they are near college graduation, their university recommends them as being ready to take the Texas Examination of Educator Standards (TExES). The test has two parts: one on teaching methods and one on the subject area and grade level in which they’re seeking certification. Passing both tests earns them a standard certificate ? they’re fully certified. Certification is offered in dozens of subjects.

The Alternative Path

This is the most popular path for people who make a midcareer switch to teaching. While alternative certification programs differ, they typically squeeze teacher training into a short series of night and weekend classes, often in the summer before school starts. It usually doesn’t involve much, if any, time in an actual K-12 classroom. When fall arrives, they can be issued a probationary certificate. While it’s not full certification, it allows them to get a job in a Texas public school. They’re usually assigned a mentor who checks in with them throughout the school year, and often there are further professional development classes. At the end of the year, they usually take the TExES. If they pass, their probationary certificate becomes a standard one.