Would you put the least-experienced principals and lowest-paid teachers in Maryland's most troubled schools and expect the students there to succeed?
Of course not. And yet, as Maryland State Board of Education President Dunbar Brooks recently pointed out, Maryland has many "high-cost" and "low-cost" schools that largely reflect the race and socioeconomics of the student population.
In fact, these disparities have existed for a long time and remain severe, based on several studies completed by Advocates for Children and Youth. It's past time for the state to get serious about directing funds toward putting proven leaders and experienced teachers in some of our neediest schools.
In 2003, Advocates for Children and Youth found that average teacher salaries in high-poverty schools in the city and Baltimore County were significantly less than teacher salaries in low-poverty schools. The differences meant that districts were spending as much as $1 million more on salaries for teachers in affluent schools.
Since then, salary differentials have widened as school districts have given large, flat-percentage salary increases to teachers. This provides more money to teachers who make higher salaries. The difference in average salaries among schools largely reflects the fact that high-poverty schools have teachers with less experience who transfer to more desirable schools as soon as possible.
Last year, more than a third of classes in high-poverty schools statewide were taught by teachers who were not "highly qualified" as defined under the federal No Child Left Behind law. This was more than four times the rate in low-poverty schools.
The same situation exists for principals. Advocates for Children and Youth recently found that principals in high-poverty schools often have no experience as instructional leaders. So those facing the greatest challenges often have the least experience to draw upon.
Weaker instruction and instructional leadership are significant factors in persistent achievement gaps in Maryland. They also help explain a rise in school suspensions across the state.
As a candidate, Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed significant financial incentives to attract strong principals to Maryland's 200 lowest-achieving schools. These "turnaround experts" - people boasting a record with disadvantaged students and a strong belief that all children can learn - would receive $200,000 bonuses spread over four years.
Mr. O'Malley also said he would fund statewide implementation of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, an extremely cost-effective national model for reducing school suspensions. Some schools in Maryland are implementing PBIS, but more support is needed to expand it to additional schools. The state superintendent of schools has strongly supported financial incentives for principals and PBIS.
If he does not act soon, the governor may not be able to fulfill these promises during his four-year term - 2008-2009 will be his next-to-last full school year, and school districts are already recruiting principals.
The state's financial situation is dire, but improving instructional leadership and reducing disruptive behavior in schools are sound investments that save money in the long run. One possible funding source is a state school improvement grant program that previously went directly to low-performing schools but now goes to school districts without any restrictions. There is no evidence that the $9 million in this program is getting to the neediest students, much less having a significant impact.
In tight fiscal times, it would be best to use these funds for evidence-based strategies that directly address the needs of challenging schools. State officials need to ensure that students in high-poverty schools have the benefit of the best principals and early access to proven behavioral interventions.
Terrylynn Tyrell is education director for Advocates for Children and Youth. Her e-mail is email@example.com.