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Report targets improving teaching quality

Date: 10/18/2011

Oct. 17, 2011

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD — Denise Hurst, vice chair of the School Committee, said she found the study conducted on Springfield teachers by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) “really interesting.”

“I’m hoping to sit down with the superintendent and see how we make this work,” she added.

Hurst was one of about 50 school officials, civic and business leaders who attended a presentation on the study on Oct. 11 at the Basketball Hall of Fame.

The study was funded by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education and the Springfield Business Leaders for Education.

In a statement released after the presentation, School Superintendent Dr. Alan Ingram said, “It is always a great opportunity for growth and new perspective when a qualified and neutral third party takes a close look at the strengths and weaknesses of our district. Whether we agree or disagree with all or some of their findings, it is a worthwhile exercise to carefully review their recommendations.”

Ingram said, “This is a good news day,” and noted the report identified 14 areas in which the system was doing well with teachers.

Kate Walsh, president of NCTQ, told the group the organization had conducted a similar study in Boston a year and a half ago. The goal is to identify solutions to problems on the district level and to address state laws that should be changed to allow greater productivity for teachers, she said.

Walsh said presently, across the country, one in seven teachers have the skill to close the achievement gap. The odds that a student would have such a teacher five years in a row are 17,000 to one, she added.

Walsh said that at a district level, many school systems “increase the tolerance of to mediocrity and we kind of give up.”

Walsh noted that while Springfield has some good practices, there is room for much improvement.

According to the report, “Springfield leaders are clearly working together to tackle the problems it faces. The district and the teachers’ union, along with several other community groups and foundations, are currently engaged in the Springfield Collaboration for Change.”

One of the foundations of the report is the concept that “everything hinges on good teacher evaluations,” Walsh said. The district is working on a new evaluation instrument, according to Ingram.

The report noted, “Springfield is revising its evaluation polices, largely due to new state regulations. Recent data shows all but 0.6 percent of teachers evaluated received satisfactory or better ratings. Most problematic is that evaluations failed to factor in the most important measure of teachers’ effectiveness: their strength on student learning.”

Walsh said that the satisfactory or higher rate of 99.4 percent isn’t realistic.

“Everyone in this room knows that,” she asserted.

Walsh said the basic recommendations for the district include making student performance “matter a lot;” require teachers to be rated every year; and make it legally permissible to dismiss a teacher found ineffective, which would require changes in state law.

One issue the report noted is how the district hires teachers. Walsh said, “Springfield spends so much time accommodating senior teachers [with reassignments], it doesn’t hire new teachers until August when the good candidates are gone. You’re bringing in teachers who couldn’t get a job elsewhere.”

Walsh also said the salaries in the district are not competitive and Springfield can not get enough teachers for specialized subject matter or enough teachers willing to teach in “the toughest schools.”

She added, “Great teachers aren’t recognized.”

The starting salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree is $37,370 and with a master’s degree, $39,643, which is the lowest pay scale of seven neighboring school districts.

The report said, “Studies show that asking teachers to earn advanced credits, such as a master’s degree, has no impact on teacher quality, yet the district currently spends over $7 million of its resources on awarding high salaries to teachers who have taken advanced coursework. However in recent years the district has made a positive step away from compensating teachers for advanced course credit by eliminating some intermediate pay grades.”

The report recommended a change in the state law that requires communities to make a decision of offering tenure after three years. The report noted, “A teacher’s effectiveness matters only nominally in Springfield’s tenure decisions.” It said that performance should be the primary reason to award tenure and that a “significant pay increase” should accompany the designation.

Tim Collins, president of the Springfield Education Association, called the report “pretty balanced,” although he did disagree with the claim that veteran teachers are not necessarily better than younger teachers. Collins said that teachers continue to grow and improve and develop abilities to deal with issues surrounding parents and guardians. He noted that the district’s home visit program, in which teachers visit families in their homes, has helped solve problems.

Collins said what would assist school districts such as Springfield would be the adoption of a two-year budget cycle on the state level. Since Springfield receives significant aid in education, the district usually doesn’t know until June how much funding it will have to hire additional staff.

On the issue of salary levels, Collins said, “No one is banging on the door to come here. The money isn’t enough, the people come here because they want the challenge of working with kids.”

He added that many of the issues outlined in the report “have been around forever” and the real challenge is changing state laws that would inhibit reform.

To read the full report, go to

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