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Report: Schools In Poorer Parts Of Vt. Tend To Have Fewer Experienced Teachers

Charlotte Albright
A sign in the Royalton School lobby guides Board of Education members to a meeting on a wide range of topics.

By the end of the school year, Vermont must come up with a plan to make sure that students in the poorest parts of the state are getting as much access to experienced, talented teachers as those in wealthier towns. The federal government is requiring states to try to close that so-called equity gap. But federal data that has been published about those discrepancies has some rather glaring errors.

The new report from the federal government shows a deep divide between what it calls “low poverty” and “high poverty” schools, and in Vermont, the “low poverty” schools tend to be the more rural ones. The data were collected directly from schools by the Office of Civil Rights, and it shows some troubling disparities, said Vermont’s Deputy Education Secretary Amy Fowler.

“If you are in a high poverty school you are more likely to have a first-year teacher than if you are in a low poverty school,” Fowler told the Board of Education during her power point presentation. But she also warned that some of the federal data on other teacher quality measurements — comparing, for example, salaries in poor vs wealthy districts — is flat out wrong. One school, for example, filled in the wrong boxes, so it appears that it has 55,000 teachers who each make about $35 a year.

“We know this isn’t right; they probably have about 35 teachers and they make on average $55,000 a year. But as a result it dramatically changes what the average salary is because it got calculated as 35 against someone else’s 65, and that’s gonna have a dip,” she explained.

Fowler says even though it’s wrong, the federal agency that released the report will not allow it to be corrected now. And that’s not the only mistake.

“The second one we know as wrong is the percent of teachers absent,” Fowler said.

The equity report lists a few high-minority districts as having 80 percent of their teachers absent for more than 10 days in one year. Fowler says that’s highly unlikely. More likely, she says, is that their contract allowed them to take that many days off, though they did not all use them.

“I do not trust this data on percentage of teachers absent because it doesn’t match what we actually see happening in schools,” she said.

Despite these errors, Fowler says the report does offer a template for the kind of information the state needs to collect on its own — correctly — to address the equity gap in teacher experience. After her presentation, she said it’s not that she believes first-year teachers are necessarily worse than those who have been at it a while — it’s that a school with a lot of new teachers may have a high turnover problem, which can make team work difficult. Teachers who stay in one place, she added, can be mentored over time by more experienced peers, and make closer connections to their communities. 

“It certainly is not true that just because you are in your first year you are not a good teacher; it’s true that you are not as good as you will be in three years,” Fowler said.

One reason young teachers sometimes leave rural areas after a year or two for more urban districts is that they are seeking higher pay and perhaps a different lifestyle. But Fowler says salary doesn’t always paint an accurate picture of a teacher’s working conditions. Higher paid staffers in big schools sometimes deal with many more students than their counterparts in smaller schools. Variables like that are hard to factor into the state’s analysis of teacher experience and pay in the public schools. Still, that report and a plan to address the equity problem are due next June.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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