AZ in Top Third with National Board Certified Teachers

Let me be clear. I’ve never worn blackface and can’t for the life of me understand why someone would think it is okay. But, I’ve been guilty (when much younger), of making the insensitive and derogatory comment that, “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.” I was referring to military trainers, not K–12 teachers, but I am still mortified and profusely sorry for ever thinking, let alone saying that, about any educator.

I was ignorant and didn’t know what I didn’t know. I now know that good teachers are highly skilled professionals who have honed their art. I know that the overwhelming majority of K–12 teachers have chosen their profession because they have a passion for helping children grow and thrive. I also know that teachers are the number one in-school factor to student success. I fervently believe, that if we are to truly unleash our students’ and our state’s potential, we must focus on preparing, hiring, supporting, and trusting, high-quality, professional educators.

I was surrounded by several hundred such professionals at this year’s Arizona K12 Center’s 10th Celebration of Accomplished Teaching. It was a wonderful gala to celebrate the 136 Arizona teachers who achieved or renewed National Board Certification (NBC) in 2018.

Established in 1987 as a rigorous assessment program, NBC was designed to “develop, retain and recognize accomplished teachers and to generate ongoing improvement in schools nationwide.” To be an NBCT, “a teacher must hold a baccalaureate degree and have three years of teaching experience on a provisional or standard certificate (no emergency or intern) in early childhood, elementary, middle, or secondary schools prior to submitting an application. “ According to the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) website, “National Board Certification was created by teachers, for teachers, to “represent consensus among educators about what accomplished teachers should know and be able to do…and is available in 25 certificate areas spanning 16 disciplines from Pre-K through 12th grade.”

In the AZ Republic’s Joanna Allhands words, NBCT “Teachers are tested on their content knowledge and must prove academic growth in their students. They also must demonstrate how they interact with their students and that they can effectively use testing data to help their students grow.” She goes on to note that Arizona doesn’t pay teachers extra (though some districts do give a stipend) for achieving NBCT status. Rather, the teachers work for certification anywhere from one to five years, at a personal cost of about $2,000, because “they know what it means for their students. Studies from across the country show that students learn more – the equivalent of one to two months’ extra instruction – from a National Board Certified Teacher.”

As a professional educator (what a breath of fresh air that is), Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Kathy Hoffman, understands how important professional development is for educators and the students they teach. Speaking at the Celebration event, she lauded the 86 new and 50 renewed NBCTs for 2018. She also told the audience she is absolutely committed to maintaining her unbridled optimism in support of Arizona’s educators. The future of our state she said, will be determined by the future of our students, and they must have professional educators to prepare them. At a time when challenges abound for public education in Arizona, she proudly highlighted the fact that our state is 18th in the nation for the total number of NBCTs and 14th in the nation for the number of new NBCTs.

A big reason for these success is the leadership provided by Arizona’s K12 Center, led by Executive Director Kathy Wiebke. Our state’s first-ever NBCT, Kathy is the program’s biggest cheerleader saying that, not only does it elevate the profession, but individual teachers as well. As the Center’s website states, NBC provides the opportunity for our best teachers [and school counselors] to pursue “the accomplishment and recognition that other professionals, like doctors and architects, pursue in their areas of specialty. In fact, ”more than 150 studies indicate that National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) make a significant and measurable impact in their schools, and the process is regarded the finest single professional development program available to teachers today.”

In addition to running the National Board Candidate Program, the Center is home to the Master Teacher Program, which works to “build capacity for teacher leadership, while providing support to the newest members of the teaching profession. The program places experienced, accomplished teachers into non-evaluative leadership roles in schools as mentors or coaches for their peers.” Other programs include a professional development opportunity called Lesson2Life which “brings education and business together to better prepare students to be career and college ready with the skills necessary to be successful citizens in a rapidly changing world.” The program takes place over the summer, and “allows teachers to see firsthand the skills needed in today’s workplace while educating businesses about the current reality of today’s education system.”

We’ve already seen how lowering job requirements for teachers hasn’t helped improve retention, with only one-third of the way into the 2018–19 school year, almost half as many certificates being issued to untrained teachers as the entire previous year. How’s about we try something else? I don’t know…maybe like treat our teachers as the professionals they are and encourage and support their efforts to continue to develop their craft?

The solution to our teacher retention problem is staring us in the face and is the same solution that will drive more student success. That’s because teacher working conditions are student learning conditions. Only when we truly embrace this concept will we begin to make sustained, statewide progress we can all be proud of.

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We Invest In That We Value

The recently released ASU Morrison Institute report titled “Finding & Keeping Educators for Arizona’s Classrooms”, offers a myriad of interesting insights into Arizona’s teacher shortage. Like the fact that 22% of new teachers hired in AZ between 2013 and 2015 left after their first year on the job and of the new teachers hired in 2013, 42% were not in the AZ Department of Education (ADE) database by 2016.

We know teacher attrition rates – about 8% over the past decade in the U.S. versus 3–4% in high-achieving nations like Finland and Singapore – are a problem. Our national price tag for teacher turnover is in fact, estimated to be $8 billion per year. With the rate ranging from under 9% in Utah to the high of 24% in Arizona, it is clear our state owns a higher than average share of this cost. But, cost isn’t the only factor as “High teacher turnover rates have been found to negatively affect the achievement of all students in a school, not just students in a new teacher’s classroom.”

A 50th ranking for elementary teacher salaries obviously has much to do with this. And although wages for all occupations across the nation actually rose by 2% between 2001 and 2016, teacher salaries have remained flat. In Arizona, elementary school teachers are actually now paid 11% less and high school teachers 10% less than in 2001. This dearth isn’t helped by our state’s low cost of living either. Although we are “only” 49th in secondary teacher pay, when compared to Oklahoma’s lower cost of living, Arizona drops to 50th.

It should have been no surprise to anyone then, that one month into the 2016–17 school year, our state had over 2,000 classrooms without a teacher and another 2,000 with an uncertified one. This despite the fact districts recruit from other states and even other countries to attract qualified candidates. According to the Morrison Report, many graduates from Midwestern colleges come to Arizona to gain two or three years of experience so they can return to their home state and get a teaching job. It appears that increasingly, “Rural Arizona districts may be importing inexperienced teachers and then exporting high-value veteran teachers back to the Midwest.” States surrounding Arizona have also been busy addressing their own teacher shortages by luring away ours. The median salary for California teachers is $30,000 more than in Arizona (even adjusted for the higher costs of living in California) and $10,000 to $15,000 higher in Nevada and New Mexico, making it enticing for AZ teachers to either move to those states or just work across the borders.

Of course, the competition has only become more fierce in light of dropping teacher education enrollments across the country. Between 2009 and 2014, institutions saw a 35% reduction in these enrollments. And, although Arizona prepares almost double the number of teachers as compared to its total teacher workforce of other states, it still isn’t enough. In 2015, there were 1,601 bachelor’s of education degrees granted by the three state universities, yet 8,358 teachers left the ADE teacher database that year. The shortfall is only exacerbated by an increase of district school enrollment of 53,000 over the last five years. In addition, a full 24% of Arizona’s current teachers are eligible to retire by June 2018, so this problem isn’t going away.

What is really sad, is that we know what needs to be done, we just don’t have the political will to do it. The truth is, that in America, we invest in that which we value. If we aren’t paying teachers what they are worth, we are telling them they aren’t worth much. That’s just the bottom line. But it isn’t just about money as teachers also report that working conditions like class sizes, competent and supportive leadership, a school’s testing and accountability environment, and teacher autonomy are also important factors. In the Morrison Report, one rural elementary teacher said, “While an increase in pay would help, I feel a lighter workload and more respect from the community, students, and political leaders would be more beneficial.” I ask you, is that REALLY too much to ask?

Throughout history, K–12 teachers have probably rarely entered the profession for the money, and ironically, that has likely worked against them. Willing to work for less — because of their commitment to their students — has made some value them less. And yet, these are the very people responsible for our precious children a large portion of each day. How’s that for irony?

In Defense of Full-Day K

One of the topics of discussion at the recent Arizona State Board of Education was the need for full day kindergarten. The minutes of the meeting report that Phil Francis, CEO of Petsmart, “gave a presentation about the importance of full day kindergarten as a grade and the efforts to bring this to Arizona. The intention of the group, comprised of business leaders, legislators and parents, is to make kindergarten a grade with rigor, requirements, accountability and benchmarks.” Arizona State Senator Steve Smith also spoke at the meeting “as a parent and as a legislator in support of this initiative.” He said “his goal is to first find out if this is something that Arizona wants and then the legislature will find money during the budget process.”

I have several issues with both their comments. First of all, there is no research data that shows kindergarten should be “a grade with rigor, requirements, accountability and benchmarks.” In fact, Finland (generally considered the best school system in the world), does not even start their children in school until they are seven years old. Numerous studies show young children need time to play and that putting too much pressure on our youngest students may cause them to miss out on other critical development and lose a love of learning.

Secondly, I am suspect whenever Senator Steve Smith appears to support something good for public education. According to the Friends of ASBA (Arizona School Boards Association) annual legislator report card, Smith only voted for our district schools and their students half of the time last year and that was better than previous years. He has consistently been a proponent of school choice and the diversion of taxpayer public education monies to private and religious schools via vouchers. Call me cynical, but if Smith is in favor of restoring the funding to full day kindergarten, there’s profit to be made by commercial schools. Further Empowerment Scholarship Account (vouchers) expansion anyone?

The meeting minutes also stated that Lisa Fink, founder of Adams Traditional Academy, spoke against the initiative saying that “many of the gains of full day k are gone by the second grade. I’m not sure what research Fink is using, but I can point to plenty that shows her conclusion is incorrect. A 2004 National Center for Education Statistics longitudinal study showed a 32 percent gain in reading and 22 percent gain in math achievement for kindergarten students in full-day programs versus half-day. A more recent study (2014) showed a sizable learning advantage for full-day students. For Hispanic full-day kindergarteners, the advantage was nearly twice that of Hispanic half-day students. In a study of over 17,000 students in Philadelphia, researchers found that “by the time they reached the third and fourth grades, former full-day kindergarteners were… 26 percent more likely than graduates of half-day programs—to have made it there without having repeated a grade.”  The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) Center says the advantages of full-day kindergarten include: higher long-term achievement, fewer grade retentions, higher self-esteem and independence, and greater creativity.

Where the gains have been less than obvious, it is likely due to outside factors. In 2008, another early childhood longitudinal study found that full-day students were statistically more likely to live below the poverty line and be of low birth weight and have unmarried parents who did not pursue education beyond high school. That is why researchers such as Chloe Gibbs at the University of Virginia, used students in her 2014 study who had a lottery to allocate full-day kindergarten slots, thus ensuring a random sampling. She concluded that full-day kindergarten produces greater learning gains per dollar spent than other well know early education interventions (such as Head Start and class size reductions.) It not only ensured all students did better, it also closed the literacy achievement gap between Hispanic and other students by 70 percent. This is important for several reasons. First of all, Hispanics are now the majority/minority in our Arizona’s district schools. Secondly, their achievement levels on the latest AzMERIT tests are lower than that of their white counterparts. Thirdly, Dr. Rottweiler, reminded the Board that “the same year we created move on when reading to increase literacy scores, we cut the funding to full day kindergarten.” In other words, at the same time the Legislature cut funding for full-day kindergarten, they enacted a law to hold students back who couldn’t read adequately by the third grade. Talk about tying the students legs together and then asking them to run….

Sometimes though, “fadeout” (an apparent loss of gains as the student progresses through school) does occur. Studies documenting the phenomenon though, “often show better adult outcomes—better health, higher earnings, etc.,” than for students who didn’t have the full-day kindergarten experience. Additionally, there is no consistency across states for kindergarten programs. Quality matters and it really matters with our youngest students.  The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) Center says the advantages of full-day kindergarten include: higher long-term achievement, fewer grade retentions, higher self-esteem and independence, and greater creativity.

One advantage of half-day kindergarten that matters to the Arizona Legislature is undoubtedly the fact that it costs less; $218 million less in 2010. Of course, the program cuts may not have been just about offsetting the state’s revenue shortfall. Cutting full-day kindergarten forced a choice on districts to either a) just offer half-day or b) trim other services (increase class sizes, eliminating art or music, cutting athletic directors) to pay for it. No matter which decision districts made, it hurt their ability to be fully successful. Not offering full-day kindergarten meant they might lose potential students who would likely have stayed through graduation. Since districts are funded on a per-student formula, this translates into lost funding. And I know there are those thinking “if the kid leaves, the cost of educating him leaves as well, so what’s the problem?” The problem is that districts have numerous fixed costs that continue to exist in full whether or not students attrit out (or never come in.) These include costs such as that for utilities, facility and grounds maintenance, and personnel.

Fortunately, there were others at the Board meeting who “get it.” Janiene Marlow, H.R. Director at Cave Creek USD, reiterated to the Board that “Full Day K programs are crucial.” Channel Powe, Balsz Elementary School District Board Member, also testified in support of full day kindergarten. Jack Smith, Yavapai County Board of Supervisors, spoke as a parent and discussed how kindergarten spring-boarded his children to success.

Of course, a move back to full-day kindergarten will cost significant monies. Kelley Murphy, from the Arizona Community Education Association (AZECA), stressed that in order to implement this in statute there must be a designated funding source. Remember that in his comments at the meeting, Senator Smith said, “the legislature will find money during the budget process.” I can guarantee you he is not talking about raising additional revenue to fund full-day kindergarten. I’m guessing he means the legislature will look at the K-12 budget to see what they can cut to fund it. Keep in mind that even after the Prop. 123 monies, Arizona is still 48th in the nation in K-12 per-pupil funding. Arizona’s GOP-led legislature is just not concerned and/or focused on truly improving the educational outcomes for the 80-plus percent of Arizonan students that attend our district schools. That’s why I’m only partially excited about the potential restoration of funding for full-day kindergarten, even though I think it is critical. It, like any other initiative we pursue in K-12 education, is not a silver bullet. It must be pursued as part of a comprehensive educational system. It must also be funded to a level that will help ensure a quality program. Junk in after all, produces junk out.

The hard truth is that as long as we accept mediocre support for our district schools, they will have a very hard time producing stellar results. The fact that some districts are excelling at the highest levels and most others are continuing to improve, is a testimony to the underpaid and undervalued but totally dedicated educational professionals in 230 community school districts around the state. They do it because they love the kids. Both they and the kids deserve much better.