Future of Teaching

Teachers kept quitting this Indianapolis school. Here’s how the principal got them to stay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teacher Abby Campbell works on math with her 4th grade class at Lew Wallace School 107. May 3, 2018.

When Jeremy Baugh took the helm as principal of School 107 three years ago, staff turnover was so high that about half the teachers were also new to the struggling elementary campus, he said. For his first two years, the trend continued — with several teachers leaving each summer.

“In the back of my mind,” he said, “I just kind of had assumed that that was going to be the norm — that I was going to have to always be on the lookout for good talent.”

But when he surveyed his staff this year, Baugh got some unexpected news: about 97 percent of teachers said they plan on returning. “I was thrilled,” he said.

Staff say the change is heavily driven by a new teacher leadership program Indianapolis Public Schools has rolled out at 15 schools. Known as opportunity culture, some teachers are paid as much as $18,300 extra per year to oversee and support several classrooms. Educators at School 107, which is also known as Lew Wallace, say opportunity culture helps retain staff in two ways: It gives new teachers, who can often feel overwhelmed, support. And, it allows experienced teachers to take on more responsibility without leaving the classroom.

As districts across the country struggle to hire teachers — particularly in hard-to-fill specialties such as math and science — many schools are especially interested in retaining the teachers they have. Although there is little research directly linking leadership opportunities with retention, there is some research suggesting one reason teachers leave the profession is because they feel they don’t have influence in their schools and they have few opportunities to advance.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Principal Jeremy Baugh has been at Lew Wallace for three years.

At School 107, which began the program last school year, there are three multi-classroom leaders who each oversee several classroom teachers. Their role is to offer advice, training, and support to their peers. They are ultimately responsible for the test data in all the classrooms they oversee.

One of those teachers is Deanna Schmidt. With five years of experience and a masters degree, she was looking for a job where she could train teachers and continue to work with students.

“I loved teaching but I just wanted to do something different. I had kind of tossed around the idea of maybe going back for an admin license,” she said. But “I don’t really want to be a principal.”

Instead, Schmidt left her job at the Butler Lab School to work as a multi-classroom leader at Lew Wallace. “I think I found the perfect fit,” she said.

Lew Wallace is one of the most diverse campuses in the city. The neighborhood it draws from, near Lafayette Square, is full of recent immigrants and refugees. And that’s reflected at the school, where 38 percent of students are learning English.

That’s just one of the challenges facing students and teachers. Over 80 percent of students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free lunch, according to state data. And mobility at the school is so high that more than half of its 606 students are new this year, Baugh said.

The result is that teaching at School 107 can be particularly hard, Baugh said. In one classroom, for example, there might be several students who are learning English — who the teacher struggles to communicate with — and four children with difficult behavior, he said.

“Those four children create kind of this shaken pop bottle syndrome in the classroom where everybody feels on edge,” he said. “That can be difficult to teach in because you don’t have this sense of calm all the time.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
About half the students in Abby Campbell’s fourth-grade class are learning English.

School 107 has long struggled on state tests. Fewer than a quarter of students passed the state ISTEP exam in 2016-2017. Over the last two years, however, individual students have made gains in test scores from one year to the next. Those improvements began before the school started using opportunity culture. But a recent study of three districts using the teacher leadership model found multi-classroom leaders raised student math scores — although they did not appear to raise reading scores.

The idea behind opportunity culture is that teachers — especially newer teachers — are not alone in handling challenges. They have mentors helping them in a range of ways — including modeling lessons, pulling small groups, and working on lesson plans.

Abby Campbell, who is in her first year teaching, has 31 students in her fourth grade class. Her students run the gamut from those who are far below grade level to those who are above it. Close to half of them are English language learners, and about five have special education plans, she said.

When she started teaching, she was overwhelmed. “I had a lot of nights with tears, and not sure if I was going to survive the year,” she said.

Campbell not only survived the year but plans on returning in the fall. One of the main reasons, she said, is because of the support she’s gotten from her multi-classroom leader, Jessica Smith. Smith helps Campbell with nearly all the pieces of her job — from lesson plans to emotional support, said Campbell.

“I can’t even imagine doing it without Jessica,” she said. “I would’ve been a hot mess.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teacher Abby Campbell works on math with her fourth-grade class.

Initially, some teachers at Lew Wallace were uncomfortable with having multi-classroom leaders essentially overseeing their classes. But the classroom leaders are supposed to be team members, and most teachers are more at ease now that they’ve gotten to know them, staff said.

“I was wary,” said Steve Carr, who teaches sixth-grade math. But Brandon Warren, the classroom leader he works with, helps him without being prescriptive, Carr said.

“It’s not me telling you what to do. It’s what we’re going to do together,” Warren said.

Multi-classroom leaders also lead regular training for teachers. After struggling to tackle everything during teacher training, the multi-classroom leaders at School 107 eventually decided to focus on a small number of issues. This year, they are working on strategies for improving student writing and for keeping students engaged — particularly English language learners, who may not feel comfortable answering questions in front of the class.

Because so many of their teachers are returning next year, they will be able to move on to new focus areas — strategies for teaching math and English language learners — instead of repeating the same teacher training, said Smith, one of the classroom leaders.

“It’s so hard to keep training new teachers all the time,” she said. “If we can keep our teachers, they are going to be such a higher caliber because we’ve put our time into them, and we’ve invested in them.”

reading science

Reading instruction is big news these days. Teachers, share your thoughts with us!

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lately, lots of people are talking about reading. Specifically, how it’s taught (or not) in America’s schools.

Much of the credit is due to American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford. In September, she took an in-depth look at what’s wrong with reading instruction in the nation’s classrooms and how explicit, systematic phonics instruction could help.

The crux of the issue is this: In the 1980s and 1990s, the “whole language” approach to teaching reading took hold, relying on the idea that learning to read is a natural process that could be helped along by surrounding kids with good books. At many schools, phonics was out.

In time, many educators brought small doses of phonics back into their lessons, adopting an approach called “balanced literacy.” The problem is, neither whole language nor balanced literacy is based on science, Hanford explained.

Her work on the subject — an audio documentary called Hard Words, a follow-up Q&A for parents, and an opinion piece in the New York Times — has spawned much discussion on social media and elsewhere.

A Maine educator explained in her piece for the Hechinger Report why she agrees that explicit phonics instruction is important but doesn’t think “balanced literacy” should be thrown out. A Minnesota reporter examined the divide in her state over how much phonics should be included in reading lessons and how it should be delivered.

In a roundtable discussion on reading last spring, Stephanie Finn, a literacy coach in the West Genesee Central School District in upstate New York, described the moment she became disillusioned with the whole language approach. It was while reading a story with her young daughter.

“The story was about gymnastics and she had a lot of background knowledge about gymnastics. She loved gymnastics. She knew the word ‘gymnastics,’ and ‘balance beam’ and ‘flexible’ and she got to the girl’s name and the girl’s name was Kate, and she didn’t know what to do,” said Finn. “I thought ‘Holy cow, she cannot decode this simple word. We have a problem.’”

In an opinion piece in Education Week, Susan Pimentel, co-founder of StandardsWork, provides three recommendations to help educators promote reading proficiency. Besides not confining kids to “just-right” books where they already know most words, she says teachers should increase students’ access to knowledge-building subjects like science and social studies. Finally, she writes, “Let quality English/language arts curriculum do some of the heavy lifting. Poor-quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools.”

Meanwhile, some current and former educators are asking teacher prep program leaders to explain the dearth of science-based lessons on reading instruction.

An Arkansas teacher wrote in a letter to her former dean on Facebook, “while I feel like most of my teacher preparation was very good, I can say I was totally unprepared to teach reading, especially to the struggling readers that I had at the beginning of my career in my resource classroom.”

Former elementary school teacher Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote to his former dean, “I’m grateful for the professional credential … But if there’s anything one might expect an advanced degree in elementary education to include, it would be teaching reading. It wasn’t part of my program.”

Teachers, now we’d like to hear from you. What resonates with you about the recent news coverage on reading instruction? What doesn’t? Share your perspective by filling out this brief survey.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Raising teacher pay likely to be at the forefront for Indiana lawmakers and advocates in 2019

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Colorado teachers rallied for more education funding on April 27, 2018.

Indiana lawmakers and education advocates are making raises for teachers a priority for the upcoming legislative session.

As top lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — prepare to craft the next two-year state budget, they have been in talks about how money could be set aside for teachers and other educators. But it’s unclear how much of a pay hike is on the table or how the dollars would get from the state to teacher paychecks.

“The governor’s office and both Republican caucuses are seriously looking at this as an issue,” said Rep. Bob Behning, a Republican who chairs the House Education Committee. “If we’re focused on really making (teaching) more of a profession, you can’t do it by grants here, grants there. People need to see the opportunity.”

While Indiana’s teacher pay has not fallen as dramatically as it has in other states, salaries are down from 2009 when adjusted for inflation. The average teacher salary in 2018 was $54,846, down about 4.5 percentage points from nine years earlier, according to data from the National Education Association teachers union. An analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics and Council of Community and Economic Research ranks Indiana 18th highest in the nation for teacher salaries adjusted for cost of living.

Teacher pay has been central to education policy debates in 2018 across the nation, with teachers in several cities staging walkouts and protests to urge officials in their states to increase funding for classrooms. Indiana teachers have not gone on strike, but the national uproar around funding and teacher compensation has been felt among Hoosier educators — especially as schools across the state struggle to hire enough qualified teachers. In Indianapolis Public Schools, raising teacher pay was the driving motivation behind asking voters to approve a tax increase of $220 million over eight years.

“I don’t think I’ve talked to anyone who said they’re fully staffed in special education,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. “But if you get them and you can’t keep them because they can’t pay bills, and they have no hope of having a family or getting a house … they’re going to look elsewhere.”

It’s too early to know how lawmakers would approach raises logistically for the state’s more than 71,000 public school teachers or how much they’re willing to support, but there does seem to be some initial consensus that the increases should go to base salaries, not just stipends as previous efforts have involved.

“We need to look at how do we make a significant impact to the base for all teachers,” said Sen. Eddie Melton, a Democrat from northwest Indiana. “That’s where we’re going now, to figure out what’s a sustainable method to fund this — not just for one or two years, but ongoing.”

In previous years, the state has set aside a few million dollars at a time for teacher bonuses or stipends for teaching advanced courses or subjects in shortage areas, such as science, math, and special education. The state’s pool for merit pay raises this year for teachers rated effective and highly effective is $30 million, amounting to typically small bumps for teachers.

But a noticeable raise for every teacher in the state would cost many millions of dollars, a considerable undertaking at a time when state revenue has been shrinking and competition among lawmakers and agencies to get a slice of state funding is high.

It’s also unclear if the money for raises would be figured into the state’s school funding formula or as a separate line item. It could be especially complicated because in Indiana, there are no common teacher pay guidelines. Each district or charter school creates its own pay scale, which often involves union negotiations as well.

Lawmakers and advocates alike say they expect this to be a top issue for the legislature. Still, any proposal to increase teacher pay would be competing with other issues — chief among them increasing funding for the Department of Child Services. Earlier this year, the resignation of the agency’s director set off a major review of its staffing and caseload, stretched further by the number of children needing services because of Indiana’s opioid crisis.

Teacher salaries could also square off against other education issues, such as school safety improvements and initiatives to increase class offerings in science and math.

In Indianapolis Public Schools, district officials have been stressing the need to increase teacher pay — a key lever to convincing voters to pass a property tax increase to raise an additional $220 million for the district over eight years. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said he’s also been having conversations with lawmakers about potential ways that the state could address the problem.

“They appreciate the need to address the teacher shortage, and they understand it’s an issue not only impacting Indianapolis Public Schools but it’s also an issue that’s statewide,” Ferebee told Chalkbeat two weeks ago.

Teacher hiring has continued to be a struggle for districts across the state, a survey from an Indiana State University professor said. Of the 220 districts surveyed, 91 percent said they’d had trouble filling jobs, with special education, science, and math being the hardest to fill.

According to state data, Indiana issued licenses to 4,285 new teachers in 2018, down slightly from 5,016 in 2017 and 4,566 in 2016. A survey conducted by the Indiana Department of Education reported 88 percent of educators who responded were unsatisfied with their pay, and it was the reason most frequently given for leaving the teaching profession.

“Based on conversations with some lawmakers, based on what’s going on across the country, I think our lawmakers have seen there’s reform fatigue,” Meredith said. “Let the dust settle and figure out how we come back and demonstrate respect for teachers.”

In other states where lawmakers have approved statewide teacher pay raises, the process has differed. Oklahoma raised the salary floor for all teachers, with an average increase of $6,100 per year. The state budgeted more than $425 million for the salary increases, which are to be covered by new higher taxes on cigarettes, cigars, and gas. In West Virginia, a nine-day strike ultimately led lawmakers to increase pay for all public employees by 5 percent.

Gov. Eric Holcomb has not yet weighed in on whether he would support a statewide teacher raise, but Behning said he’d been in conversations with the governor’s office. Indiana’s next legislative session begins in January.