Fulton K-8 students attend a dedication ceremony for the school’s new multi-sport field in 2015. / Photo by Dustin Michelson
Fulton K-8 students attend a dedication ceremony for the school’s new multi-sport field in 2015. / Photo by Dustin Michelson

Some of San Diego’s poorest schools are trapped in a cycle that is exacerbating the already-existing performance gaps that plague them.

At Fulton K-8 and Millennial Tech Middle School, for instance, teachers have far less experience than other schools in the district – within recent years, 38 percent of teachers in both schools were in their first or second year on the job. Both schools scored the worst on the state’s math assessment among schools with similar poverty levels in San Diego Unified School District last year.

At Millennial Tech, just 5 percent of eighth graders were proficient in math.

Fulton and Millennial Tech represent the most sorely suffering schools in a trend revealed by Voice of San Diego in a new data analysis: Teachers in the most high-need schools in the district tend to have less experience than teachers in more affluent schools. Instead of narrowing the achievement gap between rich and poor students, this pattern exacerbates it.

At both Millennial Tech and Fulton, more than 80 percent of the student body lives near the poverty line. In education jargon, these are called high-poverty schools. They have many challenges that more affluent schools do not. Students are more often hungry, have more often faced trauma and tend to show up already behind in learning. In San Diego Unified, 58 schools had student bodies with more than 80 percent poverty last year.

To close these gaps in learning, the students with the highest needs would need access to the highest-quality teachers. But our analysis, conducted in partnership with the UC San Diego Extension Center for Research, shows that the opposite is true – at least when judging teacher quality by experience level, a fair metric according to experts.

The average teacher within San Diego Unified had 16.5 years of experience in 2017-18, which is above the national average. But when breaking down average years of teaching experience by school, our analysis exposed wide disparities across the district. You can see the full database here.

(We also analyzed teacher experience data for charter schools in San Diego Unified. Charter school teachers, on average, have significantly less experience than their traditional school district peers.)

At Horton Elementary, the average teacher has 9.7 years of experience – the lowest among all traditional public schools in the district. Horton is also persistently struggling – and not just when it comes to test scores. The school also has above average absenteeism and suspension rates. It was placed last year on a state list of the lowest-performing schools across the state.

But there are positive outliers too. Edison Elementary – which has a poverty level of roughly 97 percent – is an especially bright spot. At Edison, on average, teachers have 18.3 years of experience. The school is also performing incredibly well on tests. Its scores are significantly better than the district average and miles ahead of schools with similar poverty levels.

Decades worth of research has shown poverty is the biggest predictor of test scores at a school. But Edison shows that it is possible for schools to upend the cycle. The most important, measurable factor in reversing the effects of poverty in the classroom is having a high-quality teacher, said Anne Podolsky, a researcher for the Learning Policy Institute, who has studied the importance of teacher experience.

Garfield Elementary, with 84 percent poverty, also significantly outperformed the district average in test scores. It’s teachers have, on average, 16.3 years of experience – almost exactly in line with the district average.

Our analysis did not show that schools with more poverty have less experienced teachers in all cases. It showed that, on the whole, as poverty goes up, years of teaching experience tend to go down.

An average can show a lot of different things. A school where teachers have an average of 16 years’ experience could mean that every teacher in the school has been a teacher for 16 years. It could also mean half the teachers have 30 years of experience and the other half have two years of experience.

A situation where many of a school’s teachers are inexperienced tends to be bad, said James Wyckoff, who studies education at the University of Virginia.

“A kid exposed to a novice teacher is being exposed to a teacher that is not as effective as she will ultimately become. That’s a disservice to those kids,” he said.

Schools with lower average years of teaching experience could also be churning through teachers at a higher rate than some other schools. High rates of churn have also been shown to have a negative impact on student outcomes.

The structural policy that makes this teacher experience gap possible in California schools is called “post and bid.” Post and bid allows the district’s most senior teachers to essentially choose their school assignment. Here’s how it works: When a teaching position opens at a given school, the five most senior internal candidates who apply automatically become finalists. The school’s principal can choose between those five.

The problem, notes Wyckoff, is that research shows teachers tend to gravitate toward schools with lower levels of poverty. The most senior teachers, thus, end up in the schools where they are needed least.

Take Dingeman Elementary School in a more affluent part of the city, near Poway. Only 5 percent of its student body lives near the poverty line. But its teachers have an average of 21.5 years of experience, among the very most in the district.

“The way the teacher labor market works is screwed up,” said Dan Goldhaber, who studies education at the University of Washington. “It’s not really fair that the students most likely to need a high-quality teacher are structurally less likely to have access to a high-quality teacher.”

Richard Barrera, a San Diego Unified board member, says that post and bid is not the problem.

“If you really want to hurt kids in a high-poverty school, force teachers to be there who don’t want to be there,” he said.

Barrera said that the way to keep more experienced teachers in high-need schools is to change the working culture within those schools. The key, he said, is making sure the schools have good principals who foster collaboration and a positive culture among teachers.

But Barrera also acknowledged that the work of teaching within a high-poverty schools is much harder than the work of teaching in a low-poverty school. And keeping good principals at high-poverty schools can be just as challenging as keeping good teachers, noted Wyckoff.

Wyckoff pointed out some experiments with pay bumps have been successful at retaining teachers and even drawing them to high-poverty schools. This is often referred to as “combat pay.” Barrera said he is inherently opposed to it as a potential solution.

Teachers at high-poverty schools “talk about how they’re at their school because of sense of mission,” said Barrera. “If they believe they’re able to make a difference for kids, they will stay.” Barrera said he wants to replicate that success and mindset, rather than consider combat pay, which he believes would likely not narrow the achievement gap at all.

The challenge for district leaders then is how to improve schools like Fulton and Horton, where they have been trying to change the culture for years or even decades with little success.

Correction: The post has been updated to more accurately describe the mechanics of the labor provision “post and bid.” A principal hiring for an open position can choose between the five most senior internal candidates for the job. 

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at will@vosd.org...

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