Duval County Public Schools doesn’t have as many highly effective teachers as it wants — especially at schools serving students with the greatest needs — and it faces a hard time to keep the ones it does have.
In addition, a gap exists in the district’s readiness to teach students under Florida’s new core curriculum standards that take effect next year.
Those findings and more are contained in a study conducted by The New Teacher Project, a nationwide nonprofit based in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti requested the study, paid for with part of a $600,000 grant from the Quality Education for All Fund, an initiative by the nonprofit Community Foundation for Northeast Florida.
The fund launched last year with the goal of helping Duval County Public Schools improve its pipeline of effective teachers and leaders, especially in high-need schools.
The study is the first work The New Teacher Project made for the district. The group also will help the district align upcoming teachers’ evaluations with the new Florida standards.
“We’re behind, and the study demonstrates that we’re behind,” said Vitti, who wanted a thorough analysis of areas he knew the district needs to work on. He also wanted an outside perspective. “You are never going to improve if you are not honest about where the gaps are. And you will never improve anything if you are not problem-solving.”
Among the study’s other findings:
■ Schools serving the most high-need students are disproportionately hampered by ineffective recruitment, selection and staffing.
■ A high percentage of low-performing teachers remain in district classrooms.
■ High-need schools lose top teachers at higher rates and hire lower-performing teachers to replace those who leave.
■ 47 percent of top-performing teachers who plan to leave the district in the next two years intend to teach locally.
■ 63 percent of Duval principals said they lost teachers they wanted to keep because of position or budget cuts in the past three years.
■ Duval loses out on the best teacher candidates because the district hires teachers too late in the year compared to top schools nationwide.
The study recommends that Duval overhaul its teacher compensation system to reward performance as the primary factor, as opposed to just years of experience. That would be a way to help retain highly effective teachers.
A recently implemented $40 million program to attract top teachers and principals to low-performing schools should help, but officials admit it won’t solve the problem.
Vitti gives the study high marks, but the teachers union wasn’t impressed.
“I think the study could have been a lot more thorough with examining the state mandates and the requirements that we are asked to implement and negotiate,” said Terrie Brady, president of Duval Teachers United.
Brady, who wasn’t interviewed for the study, said she’s also concerned it doesn’t address some priorities and policies the union and district are working on. The study looked at what is in place now, not what is coming down the road, she said.
Beginning in January, The New Teacher Project analyzed the school district’s policies and practices for recruiting, retaining, training and assigning effective teachers.
Researchers also looked at how prepared Duval teachers are for Florida’s new core curriculum standards and related assessments for kindergarten through 12th grade students. In addition, the study includes teacher salary data, and information about the instructional culture at schools.
Teachers also were surveyed. The study represents the opinions of 90 percent of the teachers and school leaders districtwide, said Liz Cutrona, who works for TNTP’s new teacher effectiveness section.
Researchers looked at a dozen schools, including elementary, middle and high schools. They ranged from high to low in student achievement. They observed teachers in the classroom, reviewed instructional planning materials and interviewed teachers, instructional coaches, principals and human resources staff, Cutrona said.
In Duval County, there is no difference between the pay of the most and least effective teachers. The largest raises go to teachers with 20 years or more experience.
Most annual step increases are less than 3 percent until teachers are higher on the salary schedule, the study showed.
That means a highly effective teacher relatively new to the district will make less, sometimes a lot less, than a lower-performing veteran teacher.
Over a teacher’s 24-year career, $173,926 to $292,357 of total compensation will be based on seniority and advanced degrees. That money could be reallocated to provide capital for performance-based compensation, according to the study.
Florida law requires that school districts revamp teacher salary schedules by 2014-15, and implement it in the 2015-16 school year, Vitti said.
Brady said the law requires an annual contract employee schedule and a schedule for teachers grandfathered in. Then there is a separate performance compensation schedule for those who are highly effective and effective, with no stipulation of years of experience, she said.
The union and district will determine what the performance compensation schedule looks like through collective bargaining, she said.
Meanwhile, the district recently implemented an incentive plan, bankrolled by nearly $40 million in private donations, to convince successful teachers and principals to work at the district’s most challenged schools.
That plan should help, but it won’t solve the problem of recruiting and retaining the best teachers, Vitti said.
School Board Chairwoman Becki Couch said keeping good teachers isn’t solely a matter of money.
“I think sometimes, it’s just acknowledging the good teachers in a school, and training principals on how to do that,” said Couch, adding that stability in a district also helps.
Vitti said the research is very clear that the No. 1 factor that determines whether a teacher stays at a school or goes, is the principal.
“Our principals must create an instructional culture where the teacher’s voice is heard. Where teachers are empowered in the classroom. And where teachers are respected, valued and acknowledged for the work that they do,” Vitti said.
DUVAL NOT READY YET
Known as the Florida Standards, new curriculum benchmarks already are in place for kindergarten through second grade.
Beginning next year, the standards will be implemented in third through 12th grade statewide.
Duval isn’t ready yet, the study revealed.
Classroom observations of 152 Duval teachers revealed “limited evidence of key instructional shifts needed for students to meet the new standards.” Nearly three-quarters of the assignments reviewed showed weak or no alignment to the new standards, the study said.
The gaps that surfaced, Vitti said, weren’t necessarily surprising.
“I think all districts in Florida, and I think all districts throughout the country, have gaps when it comes to moving to the new standards. What students are expected to do from a performance standpoint is much more rigorous than they have been asked to do before,” Vitti said.
Bringing everyone up to speed on the new standards takes time. But the process is going forward, he said.
“It is a process to get teachers to teach not only at grade level to the old standards, but to now teach at grade level with the new standards is almost herculean when it looks at the next steps regarding the expectations,” Vitti said.
This summer, principals will review the teacher survey data and will assess the instructional culture at their schools. The principals will be required to build strategies to keep the best teachers at their school and raise instruction to a higher level. They will be held accountable, Vitti said.
Teresa Stepzinski: (904) 359-4075