A weekend interview with Kathy Hebda, Florida deputy chancellor for educator quality
As Florida strives to improve the education in its lowest performing schools, one key goal is to get top-notch teachers into those classrooms. Sometimes it's not so easy to recruit and retain teachers in those schools, though. So with $9 million of its Race to the Top grant funds, the Florida Department of Education is looking to partner with outside groups such as Teach for America and the New Teacher Project in order to help fill the vacancies. The state projects a need of 800 teachers to work in targeted schools in 14 counties, including Pinellas. Kathy Hebda, deputy chancellor for educator quality, spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the initiative.
Hebda acknowledged that school districts already hire teachers with alternative certification. They also can independently work with outside recruiting firms. The Miami-Dade and Duval districts do so now.
"It's not that the districts aren't welcome to do this," she said. "What they lack many times is reinforcements to do what they want. With their low-performing schools, they have had real difficulties recruiting teachers who want to come to their schools."
She noted that one school in rural Gadsden County, which is part of the initiative, could not fill all its teaching positions despite sitting 20 miles from three teacher preparation programs.
The state's investment of Race to the Top money in this way will help the districts locate teachers who desire to be in their schools, while not forcing the districts to focus their local share of the grant on this need instead of on bigger picture items such as formulating a performance pay plan or devising a new evaluation tool, for instance.
"This is a way for us to target resources to districts that need it," Hebda said.
It's a particular need for the smaller districts, which often cannot pool the resources for recruiting. But even the larger districts including Pinellas can use the additional assistance to supplement their teaching staffs at these schools with critical needs, she added.
"There are teachers who would just not be any other place" than a high needs, low performing school, Hebda said. "In these districts, they don't have a critical mass of those people to staff all the schools. They're having a difficult time finding people to fill all the slots."
Why is $9 million necessary to achieve this goal?
The effort of finding, screening, training and supporting these teachers from outside the colleges of education does not come cheaply, Hebda said. Organizations like Teach for America usually solicit private donations to supplement the work, but the state has deemed this an important enough function to support it financially from its $700 million Race to the Top grant, she said.
It's just one piece of the entire effort to raise the performance of Florida's school system, she said.
Once the teachers are hired, they will be subject to all the other contractual obligations of any other educator in their districts. There's just one difference, Hebda said: If the districts are forced to lay off teachers, they would have to consider performance first, and not seniority, as a key criteria for who stays and who goes.
That's part of the memorandum of understanding they signed with the state in order to receive Race to the Top money. Such an agreement will help protect the low-performing schools from losing the teachers who were recruited to come there and want to stay, but who under normal circumstances might be among the first to go because they have less time with the district. (See this LA Times story for an example of what can happen. A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled this week that layoffs must be spread equitably and not be based solely on seniority.)
The state is slated to open the bids for this project on Jan. 28. Once contracts are negotiated, teacher recruitment is to take place in the spring, with the new teachers joining their schools in the fall.