State News
March 5, 2015

Rural schools struggle to keep teachers

By Amy Ash Nixon, VTDigger

Rural Vermont schools with high poverty rates have higher numbers of first-year teachers than other schools in Vermont, according to information in a federal report that looks at educator equity in public schools nationwide.

The greatest concern identified in the report—that high-poverty rural schools have more first-year teachers—is the point the state is most focused on, said Amy Fowler, deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education (AOE). “If students are more likely to have first-year teachers in schools high in poverty, then we should do something to keep teachers from leaving those schools,” Fowler said. “We will be out in communities in March and April getting input on solutions to the problems identified in the data,” she stated.

The pattern, she said, illustrates a “disadvantage for the kids in high-poverty schools,” which the state agency wants to address with local districts. “How can we equalize that so it’s less true?” is the question the agency will seek to address in the community meetings this spring.

Meetings will be held in Barre, Bellows Falls, Orleans, Rutland City and Swanton and are aimed at areas that have higher teacher turnover and more first-year teachers.

For Fowler, what she called the “high-level message” to come out of the data and what it means is “that in the state of Vermont our issues around equity are not around our students who attend high-minority schools; our issue is around students who attend high-poverty schools … but even more than that, it’s around our students in high-poverty schools in rural settings.”

Remote towns “are having a hard time holding onto their educators, teachers, principals and superintendents,” said Fowler. “It may be the reason that these communities are struggling is more related to their location than their poverty,” she said.

The report issued by the U.S. Department of Education in December includes incorrect numbers that skewed some of the information, Fowler said in a telephone interview on Friday. The areas with incorrect data that Vermont could not correct are in the reported teacher sick days and average teacher salaries, said Fowler.

“This data comes from the federal government, it’s being authorized under Title I as part of their educator effectiveness work, they produce these reports for each state,” said Fowler. Some of the data comes from the Vermont Agency of Education, based on data from schools; other data was collected under the Civil Rights Data Collection. “We can see from what was submitted, that that data was not cleaned, and in many aspects was not accurate,” she said.

The report breaks down the state’s 305 schools into highest-poverty and lowest-poverty rankings, and also highest-minority and lowest-minority quartile schools.

The report states: “In the quartile of schools with the highest percentage of students in poverty, 5 percent of the teachers were in their first year of teaching, compared to 2.9 percent of teachers in the quartile of schools with the lowest percentage of students in poverty.”

“Basically you’re more likely to have a first-year teacher if you’re in a high-poverty school, and the reason that matters (and which research shows) is first-year teachers get less good results than experienced teachers,” said Fowler.

That does not mean all first-year teachers will get poorer results, said Fowler, but teachers do improve with experience. “That’s an indicator that we want to track,” said Fowler.

She said higher-poverty schools invest in new teachers and then lose them. “That is very consistent with the national trend and matches what we would expect to see,” she said.

To determine the poverty rating, the agency used the number of students who are on free or reduced-price lunch programs, said Fowler.

In the state’s poorest schools, Fowler said, 62 percent —three out of five — students received free and reduced lunch, while in the wealthiest schools, the figure was 20 percent, or one in five.

The poverty rate in even what are considered the wealthiest schools in Vermont is higher than in many states, still at 20 percent, noted Fowler, while in the poorest schools, the 62 percent on free and reduced lunch is lower than in many other states’ poorest schools, she said. “Our highest-poverty quartile schools aren’t as poor,” she said, compared with Maine, for example.

The data shows, however, that high-minority Vermont schools have lower percentages of first-year teachers, which is not in line with national trends. “So far, Vermont’s data doesn’t match national data,” said Fowler. Vermont sees fewer first-year teachers in high-minority school districts than in the low-minority schools, which is what many states report, said Fowler.

“It’s no surprise to anyone living in Vermont we do not have a great deal of ethnic diversity,” said Fowler. “Most of our ‘high-minority’ schools would qualify as low-minority schools in other states.” For schools identified as high-minority, the first-year teacher rate is 3.7 percent, while in low-minority districts, it is 4.3 percent. “This pattern is opposite what the rest of the country will see,” said Fowler.

In another measure in the data collection, on the percentage of classes taught by teachers who are not highly qualified, again the low-minority schools are worse off, the data shows, with 5.3 percent in that measure, compared to high-minority schools showing 2.9 percent. Comparing teacher qualifications in low- to high-poverty schools, the numbers were closer — 4.1 percent for the high-poverty quartile and 3.8 percent for low-poverty schools.

Fowler said the “vast majority” of high-minority schools in the state are in the Burlington area, and she said the agency’s belief is the lower turnover and the lower need for first-year teachers may reflect teachers’ investment in “the amenities of city living” and the salary schedules there.

Another piece of the federal data focuses on the percentage of teachers without licensure or certification, although they may hold either provisional licenses or emergency licenses, said Fowler. For low-minority schools, the percent was much higher, with four percent not holding certification or licensure, than for high-minority schools at 1.6 percent.

The rates are “slightly higher for high-poverty schools (1.7 percent) than low-poverty schools (1.2 percent), but significantly lower for high-minority schools,” Fowler said. “This particular indicator is really pushing us to look at low-minority/high-poverty schools as well.… It’s a thing for us to think about, and the Agency of Education very much trusts this data,” she said of the information on certification and licenses.

After Town Meeting Day, when the AOE holds the series of community meetings, Fowler said the agency is hoping to glean some ideas for solutions from the communities themselves.

The state will deliver its Educator Equity Plan to the federal education department on June 1.

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