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March 21, 2018 3:38pm

It’s time to help Kentucky’s Lowest-performing Schools

We’ve set up a system throughout Kentucky, and particularly in JCPS, which fails our most vulnerable students and hamstrings our lowest-performing schools, known as ‘priority’ schools.  A lot of people complain and point fingers, but instead of endless handwringing let’s take a real step towards fixing one of the biggest problems: many struggling schools cannot find and keep experienced teachers due to pay.  Let’s give local school districts the tools they need to change the status-quo. Allow them to offer bonuses to teachers who take on the difficult challenges of teaching in struggling schools.

The seriousness of this problem is clearly illustrated in JCPS Data Books and School Report Cards on the Kentucky Department of Education website. Our lowest-performing schools suffer from teacher retention rates that are far lower than district and state averages, with some seeing as few as 50 percent of their teaching staff return in some years.  In large numbers, teachers transfer away from these schools or leave the profession altogether. Meanwhile, these same schools are faced with the difficult task of filling their vacancies, more often-than-not with less experienced or newly graduated staff. The average years-of-experience level of teachers in JCPS priority schools is nearly half the statewide average of 12 years. Even more concerning, the average base teacher salaries in priority schools range from $5,000 to $17,000 less than the average salaries of teachers in JCPS’s high-performing distinguished schools. Is it a surprise that we have a problem?

High teacher turnover rates and less-experienced staff in priority schools can cause significant challenges educating at-risk youth. As stressed by a 2016 Kentucky Department of Education review of JCPS, this combination has harmful effects on school effectiveness and culture, limits the development of staff cohesion, and disproportionately consumes the time and energy of school administrators.

So let’s fix this problem and remove the obstacles that make teaching in priority schools less attractive for experienced teachers.

Senate Bill 152 is a GLI-backed bill authorizing districts to offer increased monetary incentives to teachers in struggling schools, and it is a big is step in the right direction. Here’s how it works.

Under current state law, teacher compensation is dictated by a uniform single-salary schedule, a system based strictly on seniority and degree attainment. This system has had some success at helping teachers receive competitive annual wages—$53,450 on average throughout the state and $63,392 on average in Jefferson County, plus medical, pension, and other benefits.  But the single-salary schedule has numerous flaws, not least among which is the fact that it restricts the ability of districts to use increased monetary incentives—such as cash bonuses—to attract and retain teachers at priority schools. Senate Bill 152 would explicitly grant Kentucky schools districts the authority to pay teachers extra where they are most needed.

We’ve seen strategies like this be successful in states like Tennessee and, in fact, we’ve even seen it work here in Kentucky. In the 2003-4 and 2004-5 school years, Kentucky experimented with pilot programs allowing local districts to offer monetary incentives above the single-salary schedule. A priority school in Jefferson County received a grant to do exactly what Senate Bill 152 seeks to authorize permanently. The results—as analyzed by the Institute for Educational Research at the University of Kentucky—were impressive. Throughout the course of the pilot, that school saw major drops in resignations and significant increases in transfer applicants. Even more compelling, performance scores for at-risk student groups in math, reading, and science began showing noticeable signs of improvement in the final year of the pilot.

We recognize that Senate Bill 152 is not the antidote to all of the problems facing struggling schools in Jefferson County and throughout Kentucky. But Senate Bill 152 proposes a simple solution to a complex problem. By adding another tool to the toolbox for local districts to use, if they so choose, we can help improve teacher attraction and retention in the schools where motivated and experienced teachers are needed most.

Senate Bill 152 passed through the Senate and Senate Education Committee unanimously. We encourage legislators in the House, as well as educators, parents, and the business community, to support this common-sense bill.  Let’s empower local districts by giving them flexibility as they work to improve student outcomes at our most vulnerable schools.