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Quality Counts 2003: The Teacher GapFeature Stories
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January 9, 2003

Swimming Upstream

By Lynn Olson

The Great Divide
Deciding Factors
Swimming Upstream
Thwarted by Fact and Fiction
The Road Less Taken
Mission - Stability
Skirting Tradition
The Job Seekers
Hiring Highway
Teacher Profiles
Increasing the Odds

Overcrowding. Lack of materials. Lack of support. A general distrust of initiative. Those are just some of the vexations that fourth-year teacher Rebecca Solomon of Los Angeles High School says push new teachers out of high-poverty, high-minority, and low-achieving schools.

"What keeps them," says the Southern Californian, "is finding a small support group, either within their department or outside their department. Either that, or an extreme form of isolation in which they really just shut the door and don't let anything bother them."

Studies have pointed to a number of factors that contribute to the difficulty of attracting and keeping teachers in such schools, including noncompetitive salaries and the characteristics of the students themselves. But increasingly, researchers have targeted working conditions as a vital piece in explaining why new teachers leave—or stay.

Making low-performing schools attractive to highly qualified teachers is a complex undertaking.

Elizabeth L. Useem, the director of research and evaluation for the Philadelphia Education Fund, has interviewed middle school principals in high-poverty, high-minority buildings with low staff turnover. She's found that such schools are characterized by a safe and orderly environment that is welcoming and respectful to all; ongoing support for new teachers; the timely provision of materials; and principals who are strong instructional leaders and who delegate authority and develop the leadership skills of others.

"Teachers will stay in schools like that even if they have opportunities to go to 'better' schools, with higher test-score performance or wealthier kids," Useem asserts.

The following articles profile hard-to-staff schools in three different environments: an elementary school in the midsize city of Baton Rouge, La., a high school in rural Halifax, N.C., and a middle school in Philadelphia that has managed to build a stable teaching staff.

Their experiences underscore the complex challenges of making such places attractive to highly qualified teachers with other options. While each site has adopted strategies to lure teachers in and keep them there, administrators admit they are swimming upstream.

They also battle the image that such schools are chaotic, and even dangerous places to work. As these stories illustrate, that picture is far from the case. But the educational challenges are real.

Quality Counts is produced with support from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

PHOTOS: Walter Hopewell is among the teachers who have helped stabilize the staff at Roosevelt Middle School, located in a decaying Philadelphia neighborhood.
—Michael Branscom for Education Week

© 2003 Editorial Projects in Education       Vol. 22, number 17, page 21