School Finance

IPS pilot offers cash to keep great teachers in the classroom while they train peers

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

After three years as a teacher, Britney Yount realized that if she wanted a leadership role in education, she would have to leave the classroom.

So Yount took a job as an instructional coach for Teach for America, and now she spends her days training other teachers. But she’d like to be teaching kids, too.

“Every time I go in a classroom and I see kids with their teacher and they’re not my kids, I really, really miss that,” she said. “But I really want to use the skills I’ve learned in the last couple of years.”

It’s a common problem in education: in order for less experienced teachers to benefit from the knowledge of their peers, educators who use their expertise to offer training or support often have to give up teaching. That means kids are missing out on learning from some of the very best teachers.

A new program in Indianapolis Public Schools aims to change that equation by giving educators the chance to be professional leaders and mentors without leaving the classroom. The program will offer a small group of teachers with records of success extra pay to lead other teachers or teach more students.

The district is offering big money for the teachers it selects. They can make as much as $18,300 in extra pay, depending on how many extra duties they take on. All the teachers in the program will make at least $6,800 in extra pay.

Yount, who was at an informational meeting on the new program last week, was enthusiastic.

“I’m here to figure out a way to be in a classroom and have a community of kiddos that are mine, but also increase my leadership skills,” she said.

The “opportunity culture” initiative, which is modeled on a program developed in North Carolina, will pilot at six IPS schools beginning next fall. Each school is structuring its new leadership roles differently, but they fall into two categories — positions where teachers will educate more students than usual and positions where they will lead and coach other teachers in their school.

The goal is for excellent teachers to have an even greater effect on their schools, said Mindy Schlegel, the district’s talent officer.

“The thing that’s typically been done in education is that we pull our best people out to be coaches,” she said. “They’re no longer in front of kids or accountable for student outcomes.”

Struggling schools lead the charge

The six schools trying out the program are facing big challenges. They all struggle with low student test scores, and they are all part of “transformation zones,” an IPS turnaround effort that launched this year.

Those schools are a good fit for the program precisely because they need to attract and retain talented teachers, and they need strong teacher leadership, Schlegel said.

“We need something different,” said Crishell Sam, principal of School 48, a transformation zone school that will be in the pilot group. “We need something new because you can’t keep operating and doing the same thing in order to get different results.”

The other schools that will pilot opportunity culture include three elementary schools and two secondary schools: School 107, School 63, School 49, Northwest High School and George Washington High School.

Some of the schools will hire teachers to lead teams of other educators, taking on responsibilities like lesson planning and coaching. But they will still rotate into the classroom, working directly with students. Other schools will use strategies like team teaching and blended learning to help excellent teachers reach more students.

If the pilot program is successful, the district plans to slowly roll it out to more schools, Schlegel said.

School 48 is starting small with just one teacher in the program. In order to help third-grade students improve their reading, Sam plans to hire a teacher who will be dedicated to literacy. The teacher will only teach reading and writing, while other educators teach subjects such as math and science.

Elementary school teachers often have subjects that they love to teach and plan for. With opportunity culture, Sam said, “that one teacher who has all of these ideas and ways in which to make it work, she has that opportunity to expand her reach with those students.”

Balancing the costs

There’s no extra money on the table to help schools pay the teacher leaders they recruit. Instead, principals must shift funding from other parts of their budgets to pay for the leaders they want.

Teachers in leadership roles will earn additional stipends that won’t be less than $6,800 extra. But some teachers could earn up to $18,300 per year from the stipend, if they are leading several other teachers. The cost to schools will depend on how many teachers they select for leadership and what type of positions they decide to offer.

No current staff will lose their jobs to pay for stipends, Schlegel said. But principals may decide not to fill open positions.

There’s an advantage to building the program into school budgets, Schlegel said, because it will make it more sustainable in the long-term. Unlike prior, grant-funded initiatives to improve teacher leadership, the money won’t disappear.

“What we’re really looking to do,” she said, “is to start to think about building teacher leadership positions that can exist permanently.”

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.

First Person

Denver teachers are stepping up. It’s time for Colorado voters to do the same.

PHOTO: Kirsten Leah Bitzer

I’m a Denver social studies teacher, and I am striking today with my colleagues as we fight to make teaching in Denver schools a sustainable career.

Yes, it must be noted that Denver Public Schools is top-heavy, and more of the district’s funds should be directed toward professionals who have direct contact with students. But amid this pitched battle between district and union, it’s also important to realize that our current moment does not exist in a vacuum.

Twice in the last six years, we’ve watched ballot initiatives that would have significantly increased Colorado education funding fail. Amendment 73, which lost last fall, was projected to raise $1.6 billion a year. Much of this revenue would have gone to local districts, which could have boosted teacher salaries and added programming for students.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights played a significant role in creating this situation, through its draconian limits on our representatives’ ability to raise additional needed funds and its requirement that ballot measures effectively be presented to the public with the costs as a headline and the benefits as a footnote.

But there are other forces at work here, too. Last year, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business-oriented lobbying groups celebrated the demise of Amendment 73, the latest attempt to bring Colorado’s education funding to an appropriate level — even as some business leaders have expressed concern over the lack of fully prepared graduates.

The result? Denver Public Schools’ and the teachers union’s proposals are currently separated by $5 to 8 million. While our state’s $345 billion economy booms, we are fighting for scraps.

It shouldn’t be this way. An investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and in our civic and economic future. This is challenging, essential work that requires us to contend with competing answers to a recurring question: What is the purpose of schooling? As teachers, we work to balance many answers, from teaching our subject matter to instilling work skills, modeling interpersonal skills, developing citizens, and cultivating creativity.

As a social studies teacher, I’m driven to help my students understand the world as it is while also giving them the tools to reimagine it. So as my colleagues and I strike, I hope my students and my neighbors will think about what education activist Margaret Haley said 115 years ago.

“A grave responsibility rests on the public school teachers and one which no fear of opposition or misunderstanding excuses them from meeting,” she said. “It is to organize for the purpose of securing conditions that will make it possible for the public school, as a democratic institution, to perform its proper function in the social organism, which is the preservation and development of the democratic ideal.”

This is why we are organizing, today and in the future. We deserve pay that is commensurate with the demands of our work and a level of education investment that reflects the vital importance of our schools.

When the district and the union reach an agreement, which I am confident will happen soon, we will be closer to that goal — but we will not be there yet. Whereas teachers in West Virginia and Arizona were able to pressure their legislators to raise pay statewide, Denver teachers are stuck negotiating with a district starved of funding from above. Our state cannot endure this neglect forever.

The next time education is on the ballot, I hope Coloradans will invest in our students and our future.

Peter Wright is a teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, serving students from Stapleton, Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, and beyond.