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James Sonnenberg has a request for Gregory Thornton, the new superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools: “Give me the best you have, to work with the children who need the most.”

It’s a logical request. Most business leaders put the most capable employees in the most demanding situations.

But it’s also a very tough request, because, in general, that isn’t the way it works in education, where quality flows uphill, away from the lowest-performing schools and students. As teachers build up experience, seniority and, experts generally say, competence, they head for higher-performing kids, higher-performing schools and, frequently, the suburbs.

Sonnenberg is the highly regarded principal of West Side Academy, an MPS kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school in a tough neighborhood, around N. 35th St. and W. Lisbon Ave. His pursuit of a strong teaching staff is one vignette in a story that runs deep in schools serving high-needs children all across the nation.

Sonnenberg has plenty of weight to put behind his quest for more star power on his teaching staff. Federal law calls for doing more to put good teachers in front of the kids most likely to falter. Research shows those children are likely to benefit the most from having star teachers. There is wide agreement that it is a worthy goal.

strong teachers
Fourth-grade teacher Gale Niemczynski helps Cierra Breitzman, 9, with her writing assignment at Grant School in Milwaukee. Niemczynski gets the state’s $5,000 bonus for being a national board-certified teacher in a high-poverty school but says she stays there for the students, not the money. (Angela Peterson/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

However, past efforts have yielded little. A study released Nov. 18 by The Education Trust, a respected Washington-based education advocacy group, showed that students from low-income homes continue to have teachers who are working outside their field of expertise or who have little experience at rates much higher than higher-income students. The report called progress in changing that “disappointingly slow.”

Amy Wilkins, vice president for government affairs and communication for The Education Trust, said: “I would say we’re dead in the water. And it’s a place we can’t neglect in this moment. Any commodity in this society that has a value placed on it tends to flow to the haves and away from the have-nots. . . .  If we’re going to close the achievement gap, we have to get quite serious about teacher equity.”

New efforts, many of them part of bids by states to win federal “Race to the Top” grants, are being launched across the country to deal with the issue. Amid calls for firmer and bolder action, strategies including pay incentives, changes in training and mentoring, and untraditional hiring practices are being tried.

High-quality teachers

Just as it is hard to measure teacher quality in general, it is hard to measure the severity of the quality gap in teaching.

The most thorough look at the local situation was a 2006 study, also by The Education Trust. Looking at data from Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio, the report described “a fundamental but painful truth: Poor and minority children don’t underachieve in school just because they often enter behind; but, also because the schools that are supposed to serve them actually shortchange them in the one resource the most need to reach their potential – high-quality teachers.”

West Side Academy’s Sonnenberg has been outspoken in recent years about how difficult it has been to fill teaching jobs in his school, which serves poor minorities, a large number of whom are transient students from troubled homes in a high-crime area.

“If you’ve got openings that nobody wants, you’re going to get a struggling teacher,” Sonnenberg said. He praised the teaching staff overall, but said the joke in his building is, if you show up for a job interview, you get the job – unlike some suburban situations, where there can be hundreds of applicants for each opening.

And when MPS sent hundreds of teachers layoff notices last spring, that meant three of his most promising teachers were bumped out because they lacked seniority. (They were later recalled but assigned to other schools, while Sonnenberg was sent experienced teachers whom he had not sought, nor had they sought him.)

Weak initiatives

A brief chronicle of efforts in Wisconsin that have not had much impact:

No Child Left Behind: The 2002 federal law called for “highly qualified” teachers to be working in all classrooms, including the neediest, by the mid-2000s. There is no substantial evidence that it had much effect nationwide. And in Wisconsin, the state Department of Public Instruction said that 99% of all teachers were “highly qualified,” using a definition basically pegged to whether they had at least a temporary license to teach. But that finding left unaddressed actual quality issues that just about everyone involved acknowledges.

Revamped teacher licensing: Wisconsin adopted new policies on teacher licensing in the early 2000s, with a system that requires such steps as having teachers early in their careers develop professional improvement plans, to be overseen by expert teachers. While there has been wide compliance with the new rules, there is little evidence the system has meant actual improvement in quality, especially in high-need schools.

Hiring committees in MPS schools: In the late 1990s, MPS and the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association agreed to allow committees from each school to have a strong voice in selecting who should fill many, but not all, teaching vacancies. The change reduced the role of seniority in teacher assignments and was heralded as a way weaker schools could develop better and more united teaching staffs. But a 2007 report by the New Teacher Project, a national organization that aims to improve teaching, found basically that the change backfired.

State bonuses for top teachers to work in low-achieving schools: Wisconsin pays a $2,500 bonus to any teacher who earns certification from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. In 2007, an additional $2,500 was offered to board-certified teachers who work in low-performing schools. Has this effort had any impact? “No. It has not,” said Tony Evers, state superintendent of public instruction. Nothing against the teachers who take part, but there were only 57 of them statewide, and 26 in Milwaukee.

What could be tried

So what else might be done, in hopes of having more impact? A few ideas in nutshells:

Incentives: Teachers can earn extra money in several different ways in Denver’s innovative system of teacher compensation. One of them is to work in low-performing schools. It’s not clear how much effect this is having, and there are many who think money is not the answer to getting teachers to take tough assignments, but advocates of the Denver system think it has encouraged teachers to tackle assignments they might otherwise have avoided.

Incentives don’t have to involve only pay, MPS’ Sonnenberg suggests. More help in the classroom, smaller classes or extra money for class projects could be incentives.

MPS has received a five-year, $7.6 million federal grant to develop incentives to improve teaching in some low-performing schools. Work is just beginning on how to use it, but MPS officials are more interested in systems in which all teachers in a school could earn bonuses for success, rather than specific teachers.

Make schools better places to work: This is both the simplest and most complex solution. The New Teacher Project report in 2007 said, “The best way to staff high need schools is to make them attractive to great teachers.” But how do you achieve that?

Mike Langyel, president of the Milwaukee teachers union, listed things that would attract teachers: “A competent and fair principal is key not only in getting teachers there but in keeping them. . . .  We’re also looking at schools that are safe.”

Improve the teachers who are in the schools: This is the main strategy the new leadership team in MPS is pursuing. Heidi Ramirez, chief academic officer, asked, “What do we do to support teachers?” Raising the quality of the people you have through effective on-the-job training, mentoring and coaching is key.

Gale Niemczynski, a fourth-grade teacher at MPS’ Grant School on the south side, receives the state’s $5,000 bonus for being a national board-certified teacher in a high-poverty school. The money, she said, isn’t really an incentive to stay. She stays because of her strong feelings for her students. And that should be something sought in applicants for teachers and developed through better field placements for college students learning to be teachers, she said.

Recruit differently: Allan Odden, a University of Wisconsin-Madison expert on developing teaching staffs, said other urban centers appear to have had success with initiatives to find better teaching candidates.

“Where did Chicago, where did Boston, where did New York get their teachers before these initiatives?” he asked. “They got them from the worst teacher training programs.”

Now they look farther afield for candidates, sometimes including UW-Madison. “They recruit top talent,” he said, and put them in high-needs schools.

Odden also said programs such as Teach for America have tapped into a strong desire by top-flight college graduates to spend at least two years helping the country by teaching in demanding situations.

Fire the weakest teachers: Eric Hanushek, a Stanford University economist who specializes in education issues, said in a recent speech that if the bottom 6% of teachers were forced out of the profession, it would have a broad elevating affect. If there were fewer weak teachers, there would be fewer to put in the worst assignments.

But how do you identify them and, in a system where teachers generally have very strong job security, how to you carry out such steps? Experiments in reforming tenure and making it easier to move out weak teachers are under way in some places nationally, but there has been no significant change on these fronts in Wisconsin.

Order teachers to work in the neediest schools: “Why can’t the employer determine what is best for the organization?” asked Sonnenberg. But there is almost no talk of forcing teachers with seniority to take such assignments. And, ultimately, it is tough to make people take jobs they don’t want.

End required residency in the city for MPS teachers: Among the 50 largest school districts in the United States, only Chicago and Milwaukee require residency. But efforts to change that have gone nowhere up to this point.

Insist on a better learning environment: Strict rules for behavior, longer school days, greater intensity around academic work – these are parts of the formula that some schools are using with success.

Joshua Beggs, who heads the small high school operation of Eastbrook Academy, a religious school on the north side, said: “Many high quality teachers want to spend their lives helping underserved students succeed. Give them a classroom full of students who want an education and they’ll work in the poorest neighborhoods and may even accept below-average pay. Place them in a school full of unruly, undisciplined, unmotivated kids and they’ll give it their best shot – but ultimately they’ll quit if they can’t achieve success.” It works at Eastbrook. Could it be achieved more broadly?

Playing the contrarian, Andy Porter, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, asked if it was really the right thing to assign the best teachers to the weakest students. Don’t the best and most promising students need top teachers? In terms of national strategy, what is better, to invest in the brightest or the most challenged?

“I don’t think it would be politically feasible” to reduce the quality of teaching in high-performing schools, Porter said. “People with the money want the goods.”

“But I do think it’s awful that these struggling students get the weakest teachers, I do,” said Porter. On the other hand, he said, if the weakest teachers got better or were replaced with better, then getting a “weak” teacher might not be such a problem.

Justin Snider contributed to this report, which appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on November 28, 2010.

About this series

For the series “Building a Better Teacher,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s education reporting team of Amy Hetzner, Erin Richards and Becky Vevea collaborated with staff of The Hechinger Report and Alan J. Borsuk, senior fellow in law and public policy at the Marquette University Law School.

Over eight Sundays, the series will spotlight challenges to the way teachers are trained, evaluated, paid, promoted and dismissed – and how all of it comes to bear on student success.

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  1. The notion that business doesn’t work the same way — that in other fields seniority doesn’t earn the employee a more desirable job — is not valid. Look at your own workplace, Alan J. Borsuk — who’s on the copy desk working the 3 p.m.-midnight shift with Tuesdays and Wednesdays off*, the newcomers or the experienced veterans?

    *or the equivalent

  2. I can make 8-10K extra each year teaching 2 extra courses per semester in night school for a community college. Why bother with the NB? The students have better behavior and I don’t have homework to grade or parents to call.

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