Teachers key to top schools
The Oakland Tribune, June 17, 2003
Senior instructors in Oakland hills earn an average of $10,000 more than those
By Jill Tucker and Robert Gammon,
California taxpayers routinely spend
thousands of dollars more teaching each of the state's already advantaged
students than on the low-income, minority kids who are most likely to post the
lowest test scores or drop out of school.
Elementary school teachers in the Oakland hills, for example, earn$60,000 per
year on average, compared to about $50,000 for their inner-city flatland
counterparts, according to a salary comparison of Oakland teachers conducted by
the Oakland Tribune.
Add up those dollars over six years of an elementary school education and it
means the state spends, on average, at least $60,000 more to teach one Oakland
child than to teach another just a few miles away.
Across the Bay Area and the state, the wide disparities of tax dollars spent on
teachers -- arguably the most important publicly provided factor in a child's
education -- are commonplace from one district to another and within individual
districts that have steep divisions of wealth.
In truth, how much teachers make tells little about how good they are. A
lower-paid teacher isn't necessarily inferior, just less experienced. Teachers
aren't paid based upon performance; Their paychecks simply reflect seniority and
And that means billions of California's education dollars don't follow the
students, they follow the teachers.
Yet none of the state's decade-long attempts at education reforms has tackled
what it means in sheer dollars to have lower-paid, uncredentialed and
inexperienced teachers with poor and minority students.
"What we haven't done is an all-out effort to alleviate the maldistribution of
teachers in the state," said Russlyn Ali, director of The Education Trust-West,
an Oakland-based nonprofit dedicated to reducing disparities in schools.
"Everybody is entitled to high-quality teaching. The kids who have the least, we
provide them less of everything we know that matters the most."
The main cause of the gap stems from how California pays for its schools, along
with rules-laden union contracts signed by individual districts and the lack of
incentives for experienced teachers to take jobs in the least-desirable
The disparities come into focus at the local level, where individual schools
don't have their own budgets for teacher salaries. Instead, schools are assigned
teachers based on enrollment. Two schools with the same number of students, for
instance, typically have about the same number of teachers.
But teacher salaries play no role in that equation.
Teachers with seniority -- and therefore the biggest paychecks -- get preference
in assignments and they overwhelmingly choose schools in well-to-do areas, with
high-parental involvement and college-bound kids.
Those experienced teachers don't often end up choosing schools in lower-income
neighborhoods, where parent participation is less. Instead, those schools often
end up with more than their share of brand new, uncredentialed and inexperienced
teachers who cost less. Not surprisingly, the low-performing schools also tend
to have high teacher turnover rates.
In California's poor and minority communities, one out of five teachers is not
fully credentialed, compared to about one in 20 in whiter and wealthier schools
with higher test scores and lower dropout rates.
A credentialed teacher in California with 20 years experience makes upwards of
$90,000 including benefits, depending on the district. An uncredentialed teacher
makes around $45,000 with benefits.
That means the state ends up spending untold millions less teaching poor,
Even when you include all state, federal and local funds spent on teachers, even
money dedicated to low-performing and low-income students, districts still spend
less on poor kids.
In Hayward, for example, the district spent an average $2,894 on teacher pay per
low-income student during the 2001-2002 school year, compared to $2,934 for the
students above poverty level, according to an Oakland Tribune analysis.
Under current union contract rules, leveling the funding playing field appears
to be next to impossible. Contracts typically prohibit paying teachers more to
work in specific schools. They also stop administrators from requiring veteran
teachers to transfer into low-performing schools.
Teaching no picnic
Teaching in the state's lowest-performing schools is not easy.
Oakland English and social studies teacher Adam Rosenthal has been at
Havenscourt Middle School for two years -- a Teach for America intern teacher
two years out of college.
Every day over the last two years he faced students who arrive at school hungry,
tired or plagued by personal problems. He doesn't have enough textbooks for all
his students. Most of his students can't read at their grade level.
"You're the teacher, the therapist, the social worker, sometimes the parents,
the mentor," said Rosenthal, who is leaving the classroom for law school in the
In short, it seems to require a measure of altruism for teachers who choose
Over the past few years, Gov. Gray Davis introduced numerous programs designed
to help lure and retain fully qualified and experienced teachers to the schools
that need them the most: student loan forgiveness, home loan help, university
fellowships, mentoring and professional development, among others.
Several have fallen by the wayside with the budget deficit soaring -- including
the $20,000 fellowships for future teachers who want to work in low-performing
In the meantime, the percentage of uncredentialed teachers in numerous East Bay
schools has increased in recent years, according to an Oakland Tribune analysis
of school staffing data from the state Department of Education.
Fremont, San Leandro and Hayward districts, for example, each saw an increase in
the number of schools with 20 percent or more uncredentialed teachers.
In 1997-98, there were four Fremont schools in that category. By 2001-2002,
there were nine. During that same period, Hayward went from eight schools with
at least 20 percent uncredentialed teachers to 12, while San Leandro jumped from
one school to five.
Incentives for teachers
Across the country, other states have offered incentives -- smaller class sizes,
merit pay or incentive pay -- to teachers who take the most difficult positions.
The programs are modeled on businesses practices that commonly use incentives to
lure top talent to tough assignments.
"In contrast to the practice in many schools where weak teachers are assigned to
the most vulnerable students, successful companies put their best people in
'turnaround' situations," wrote Susan Traiman, director of The Business
Roundtable's Education Initiative, in the 2000 report, "Thinking K-16,"
published by The Education Trust.
The state's largest and most powerful teachers union, the California Teachers
Association, eschews giving teachers financial or other incentives for a
It would be "psychologically bad," said Wayne Johnson, CTA's outgoing president,
adding teachers would resent colleagues with the same experience making more
money. "The teachers in the hills would say we're doing the same job."
Johnson acknowledged that "poor kids are getting jobbed," arguing that smaller
class sizes and more individual control over curriculum would attract more
teachers to those neighborhoods. But Johnson wants those reforms for every
"That's not a strategy for systematic reform, to say it takes heroic effort by
extraordinary people," said Merrill Vargo, executive director of the Bay Area
School Reform Collaborative, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that awards grants
to help schools improve.
A student is lost
Earlier this spring, a small Hispanic girl kicked at the gravel on the asphalt
playground at Havenscourt Middle School in Oakland as she explained why she had
to repeat the sixth grade two years ago.
Midway through her first sixth-grade year, when about half the school's 35
teachers were uncredentialed, the girl's math teacher left and a series of
substitutes took over the class.
"They didn't teach the same thing," the seventh grader said. "I didn't
understand it. I got lost."
She flunked the class and the year. She will spend an extra year in middle
school, costing taxpayers more than $8,000 extra to educate her.
If school districts can't convince credentialed, experienced teachers to take
jobs in schools like Havenscourt, why not change the rules and force them to go?
"They'll quit," said CTA's Johnson. "They will just flat quit before they'll
Nonetheless, the Bush administration, under the No Child Left Behind Act, is
requiring high-poverty schools to be fully staffed with "highly qualified"
teachers by the 2005-2006 school year or face financial sanctions. The
requirement comes with $2.9 billion in federal funding nationwide to improve
teacher quality at each school.
Critics, however, say the state's definition of a highly qualified teacher
includes interns -- which means low-income students could still lack a fully
credentialed teacher and yet still meet federal requirements.
As it stands now, most school districts cannot afford to put veteran teachers in
every classroom -- unless the class sizes get a whole lot bigger. California
doesn't spend enough money on education to have universally small classes
staffed with well-paid teachers.
In truth, districts typically staff schools with a mix of veterans and rookies.
But in districts with divisions of wealth, the veterans more often opt for the
high-performing schools leaving the rookies the job openings in in the
highest-poverty, lowest-performing and least-appealing schools.
"Parents in the hills band together and demand that new teachers have full
credentials," said William Chavarin, a first-year teacher at Lowell Middle
School in West Oakland. "As a result, inexperienced teachers and those without
credentials end up in the flatlands. But that just means the students are guinea
pigs of the new teachers who are transferred around."