In Kids & Family Commentary

Recent analyses confirmed what we suspected: Schools with the poorest, hardest to teach students by far have the most inexperienced and poorly trained teachers. (PHOTO: Bobby Tanzilo)

DPI aims for better equity in Wisconsin's K-12 teachers

I have good news, and I have bad news. The bad news is that two recent analyses of who teaches where in Wisconsin's K-12 system confirm what we all suspected, which is that the schools with the poorest, hardest to teach students by far have the most inexperienced and poorly trained teachers, and that problem is growing.

The good news is that there's an effort afoot to try to improve that.

In August, Milwaukee's non-partisan Public Policy Forum released an analysis of who teaches in the greater Milwaukee area, and how that workforce has changed since 2009-2010, the year before the so-called Act 10 law that undid many worker protections for teachers in the state and the massive budget cuts to K-12 education that followed in the 2011 state budget.

The Milwaukee Public Schools, by far the area's most challenged district, was also by far disproportionately hit. Whereas the metro area overall saw a small decline in student enrollment (0.4%) and a similarly small decline in teachers (4.6%), MPS lost 4.4% of its students and a whopping 14% of its teaching staff according to the report. If MPS's teaching force had changed in proportion to the rest of the region, it would have lost about 40 teachers. Instead, it lost 730.

PPF does note, however, that MPS saw an increase in the number of special education teachers over that time, reflecting something else that we have all long suspected: The number of special education students, and the concentration of them in the district, is increasing.

The report also shows that MPS teachers in general also have less experience in the classroom than their suburban peers, which tracks with an analysis done by the Department of Public Instruction of teachers state-wide. Done as part of a plan submitted to the federal education department relating to the "equitable distribution of experienced and qualified teachers within the state," DPI found that students with the greatest need often had the least experienced, least qualified teachers.

"In schools with a large population of low-income students, students of color, or students with disabilities," DPI said, "there was a much higher proportion of teachers who were inexperienced, unqualified, teaching outside of their field, or teaching under an emergency credential. Most of this inequity came from the nine school districts with the largest populations of students of color."

Milwaukee, with its minority enrollment over 86 percent, is by far the biggest of those nine districts; MPS also has nearly 83 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, the most common measure of poverty in schools.

According to the DPI data, students in high-poverty districts are six times more likely to have an "unqualified teacher," and nearly five times more likely to have a qualified teacher teaching outside of their area of expertise. The same ratio holds true for high-minority districts, although the "equity gap," as it's called, is not quite so bad for districts with high special education enrollment.

The "equity gap" also has grown since 2007-2008; DPI presents graphs showing that today there are far more Wisconsin teachers with limited experience than there were in the recent past, and that those teachers are disproportionately teaching in poor districts.

DPI goes on to note further that if those nine districts – MPS, Racine, Green Bay, Madison, West Allis, Waukesha, Janesville, Kenosha and Beloit – are excluded from the data, there is no "equity gap" at all in the rest of the state data. The rest of the state's schools, once you remove the high-poverty, high-minority enrollment districts, doesn't have any measurable disparity in experience or qualifications among their teachers.

At this point, you're probably all, "So what? How is this news?" Maybe it isn't new news, sure, but I firmly believe that we ought to be talking about issues of equity at this moment, as plans to potentially upend the Milwaukee Public Schools unfold here under the Opportunity Schools Partnership designed to peel schools and students away from MPS, and as statewide voucher and charger expansion start doing more damage to poor districts all over Wisconsin.

The paranoid among my colleagues look at things like this and see a design to destroy public school districts that serve primarily minority and low-income children. The state slashes budgets and destroys enrollment with voucher programs and charters. The teachers are persistently less experienced and less qualified even as the students left in these districts become more and more high-need. And then what happens to test scores? In the tank, of course, justifying further actions to destroy the public schools.

I don't know if I believe this is all a diabolical scheme as opposed to a spiral no one has been able or willing to stop yet. But a spiral it is, or at least a terrible feedback loop that puts struggling districts further and further in hole as time goes on.

DPI, though, is at least starting to get serious about bringing more qualified teachers to these districts and seeing what can be done to keep them there. The Public Policy Forum report points out that Milwaukee and West Allis, both among the nine districts identified by DPI, were the two districts in the metro area that lost the most teachers to competing school districts in the years covered by that report (to be fair, West Allis was also the second-highest metro district for gaining teachers from other districts, but they lost more than they gained).

While I don't think that DPI has considered everything that could be done to keep teachers in place once they join one of these struggling districts, there are some hopeful things in DPI's plan, including an emphasis on helping districts see the bigger picture of where their strongest and weakest teachers are and advice for how to assign staff smarter within the district.

Among the things missing, though, is more attention to making teachers look more like their students. Both DPI's and PPF's reports make a big deal about how the racial balance of teachers in these districts (and, for that matter, statewide) is very different from their students. In West Allis, for example, only 2.5 percent of their teachers are non-white, while 42 percent of their students are.

MPS's teachers are 29 percent non-white, but 86 percent of the students are minority. This is perhaps a bigger challenge than, for example, encouraging college students who already want to be teachers to get licensed in a high-need area, but we need to be doing more to recruit non-white teachers to serve in high-minority districts because according to the best research available, this can have a real and positive effect on student achievement.

Still, we're moving in the right direction at least a little. The question is whether this is too little and too late. Have the legislature's recent moves to harm public schools already done so much damage that no amount of tinkering with who teaches where is going to make much of a difference?

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