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Sherman Elementary School students in a dual-language immersion class practice their reading skills. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The factors that push a teacher to stay or leave a given school are nuanced and complex. And yet the problem of the teacher experience gap is fairly simple: Poorer schools in San Diego, and across the country, tend to have less experienced teachers.

This trend, revealed in a data analysis by Voice of San Diego, intensifies the achievement gap between rich and poor students, rather than narrowing it.

Most education advocates agree: Getting the most experienced, high-quality teachers to the kids most in need, is an important objective. But few agree about how it should be done. Teachers often leave a school because they don’t like its leadership or it has an unwelcoming climate. Some think improving a school’s culture is the only way to get high-quality teachers to stay in high-poverty schools.

But teachers also leave sometimes because they want an easier assignment, where lower poverty levels make the job less demanding. Labor laws that allow more senior teachers to bid out of poorer schools play a role in making this possible. Some states and cities have experimented with pay increases at high-poverty schools to reverse this trend, but it remains stubborn in many places.

“This is a stereotype but if you’re a teacher in City Heights, once the school day ends, the second half of your day begins,” said Richard Barrera, a San Diego Unified School District board member. “It might be doing home visits or coordinating social services for kids in you class. … If you’re teaching at a school in La Jolla, once the day is over you might be going home.”

Despite the difficulty of keeping good, experienced teachers in high-poverty schools, Barrera acknowledged it is an imperative the district should be striving for.

He said it is often the first thing he looks for when he visits a high-poverty school. Are the teachers coming to the school and staying there?

“Teachers who stay at a school are asking, ‘Can we plan together and challenge each other?’ Or is it, ‘Leave me alone. You deal with your class and I’ll deal with mine.’ That sense of being in a community of fellow educators that are similarly driven to make a difference for kids and set high standards for kids is what makes the difference,” he said.

Barrera brought up the example of Central Elementary, under the leadership of Cindy Marten, before she became superintendent of the district. Central was a high-poverty school, where “over the course of six or seven years there hadn’t been a single teacher that had voluntarily posted out,” said Barrera.

“Post and bid” is the labor provision that allows teachers to leave a school like Central, if they choose. It gives the most senior internal applicants priority for open positions within the district. Even though “post and bid” could have helped teachers leave Central, they chose to stay, Barrera said.

Barrera wants to replicate that success across the district by creating positive and supportive cultures within all the district’s schools. But despite the success of some positive outliers, like Edison, Franklin and Ross elementary schools, other schools, like Knox Middle and Horton and Fulton elementary schools, have persistently struggled. Years of effort have failed to bring around the kind of culture Barrera is pushing for at those schools.

And, on the whole, higher-poverty schools have less experienced teachers, as Voice of San Diego’s analysis showed.

I asked Barrera if perhaps teachers should be paid hourly instead of salary – that would mean teachers in City Heights, in his example, get paid overtime for the extra work they’re doing.

“No,” Barrera said. Teachers’ motivation to stay at a school should be based on a sense of mission and passion, not pay, he said.

Experiments with pay bumps to attract and retain teachers at high-poverty schools have been successful in other places, said James Wyckoff, who studies education at the University of Virginia.

The Talent Transfer Initiative was a particularly promising study that took place in several cities in the U.S., said Wyckoff. The project paid teachers who had already been deemed high-quality a $20,000 bonus to move to a high-poverty school for two years, according to Slate. Those teachers produced better results, on average, and 60 percent of them stayed on at the same assignment even after the bonus had been fully paid out.

“We shouldn’t treat all teaching jobs as if they are generic,” said Dan Goldhaber, who studies education at the University of Washington. “There are some schools that are tougher to teach at because of the different levels of academic preparation of students.”

Goldhaber said some experiments and reforms have shown it is cheaper to pay a teacher to stay at a high-poverty school than to pay a teacher to transfer to a high-poverty school. But he acknowledged that changing a school’s culture can be equally important for retaining teachers.

“Teachers do care about the quality of school leadership or how collegial the school is, but you can’t just flip a switch and make school leadership better,” said Goldhaber. “We know you can pay an extra $2,000 or $5,000 or $10,000 and it will have an impact on what teachers do.”

In 2013, California enacted a revolutionary new funding model for public schools. It would funnel significant extra cash toward schools and districts with higher percentages of low-income and high-needs students.

But ever since the new funding model – known as the Local Control Funding Formula, or LCFF – went into effect, critics have argued that it’s not actually serving the children most in need, as per its design. A recent audit echoed those concerns, noting that San Diego Unified spent $5.2 million on across-the-board library services instead of on services geared specifically toward vulnerable students.

But even more controversial than library services has been the question of teacher pay. Many have argued the supplemental LCFF funds should not go to across-the-board pay raises. Some have instead suggested the funds might be better used to increase teacher pay in high-poverty schools.

But in 2015, the state’s then-superintendent, Tom Torlakson, temporarily settled the issue. He said LCFF supplemental funds could be used for across-the-board pay raises. The state’s new superintendent, Tony Thurmond – who was backed by teachers unions during a bitter election in 2018 – has said he might consider reversing the guidance.

He did not respond to a request for comment.

San Diego Assemblywoman Shirley Weber has been one of the most vocal critics of LCFF. She has sought more transparency and clearer guidance on how the funds should be spent in the past. Weber told Voice of San Diego last month she plans to go back on the warpath next legislative session seeking changes to LCFF.

“We still have these kids failing,” she told KPBS in a separate interview. “That is unacceptable.”

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego.

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