Poor students in the Tampa Bay area are less likely than their affluent peers to be taught by teachers who are widely considered the best, according to a St. Petersburg Times analysis.
The Times looked at the distribution of more than 1,000 teachers in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties who have achieved national board certification, which is often viewed as the gold standard of good teaching.
In each district, only two of the 10 schools with the most board certified teachers last year had a majority of low-income students.
On the flip side, 13 of 17 Pinellas schools with no board certified teachers are high poverty. In Hillsborough, it's 21 of 30.
The clumping of board certified teachers in wealthier schools comes as no surprise to many education experts. A smattering of studies have reached the same conclusion. And even the group behind board certification — the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards — acknowledges the gap is a problem.
But the issue rarely surfaces in public debates about schools, either with board certified teachers specifically or high-quality teachers generally. Instead, the conventional wisdom often holds that some students do worse than others because they are saddled with the dysfunction they bring from home.
The Times analysis suggests a more complicated picture — one in which school systems may be compounding the problem by allowing struggling students to be taught by teachers who aren't as good, or as well paid, as the ones across town.
Board certified teachers are rewarded with lucrative state bonuses that totaled $81-million last year. And in the past decade, the state has spent $515-million on the program. But the Times review shows that money has not been evenly divided among schools.
The Legislature did a good job increasing the number of board certified teachers, said state Rep. Trey Traviesa, R-Tampa, who is likely to be the next chairman of the powerful House Education Council.
But "unfortunately that program was not connected to another equally important public policy, which is to direct those super-talented professionals" to high-needs schools, he said.
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Every day, Sherrie Lee drives an hour to and from her home in Manatee County to teach at Mount Vernon Elementary in St. Petersburg. As a board certified teacher and a former Pinellas Teacher of the Year, she could easily transfer to a less challenging school.
Fifty-one percent of Mount Vernon students are minorities; 72 percent are on free or reduced lunch. Teaching there means dealing with kids with special needs — and shouldering extra stress.
"But I always feel led to stay," said Lee, 46. "It's a spiritual thing."
Among her board certified peers, Lee is in the minority.
In Pinellas, 51 percent of schools have a majority of students on free or reduced-price lunch. But only 35 percent of Pinellas's board certified teachers are teaching in such schools.
In Hillsborough, the corresponding numbers are 57 percent and 41 percent. In Pasco, it's 49 percent and 43 percent.
The Times analysis did not include charter schools, alternative schools or special programs.
The Times also found a gap for Pinellas and Hillsborough schools that have a majority of minority students, but it was not as pronounced as the poverty gap. The minority gap was tiny in Pasco, which only has a few schools that are more than 50 percent minority, and nonexistent in Hernando, which has no such schools.
The poverty gap is most glaring in schools with the most and least board certified teachers.
In Hillsborough, two of the 10 schools with the most are high poverty. And six of the 10 are high schools where records show the majority of board certified teachers teach Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and/or honors classes.
Those classes often harbor a disproportionate number of white, Asian and more affluent students. At Hillsborough High, for example, 15 of 17 national board certified teachers are listed as IB teachers. And while the school's overall population is 34 percent black, only 6 percent of the students in the IB program are black.
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Some observers suggest board certified teachers migrate away from high-needs schools for the same reasons other teachers do: to be closer to their homes; to get away from the grind; to maximize their skills at schools where kids come better prepared.
The Times found schools with the most board certified teachers are about 60 percent more likely to be "A" schools than schools with none.
Others say high-needs schools may not have as many teachers tackling certification because they tend to have a higher percentage of young teachers still learning their craft. Still others wonder if the added stress of teaching in a struggling school could leave those teachers too drained to commit to a process that has been compared to the slog of getting a master's degree.
"It's a possibility that teachers who are already working above and beyond don't have the energy," said Lee, the teacher at Mount Vernon.
Lee said the skills she picked up during the certification process taught her to "think out of the box and find new ways to reach these kids." She pointed to a toy-like device she created to keep her students focused during class discussions.
But like many board certified teachers, Lee was reluctant to say there is a problem with the relative scarcity of her peers in high-poverty schools.
District officials were, too.
A better distribution would be good, said Hillsborough School Board member Doretha Edgecomb, who represents predominantly black east Tampa. And after hearing the Times findings, she said she would raise the issue with other board members and superintendent MaryEllen Elia.
But, Edgecomb was quick to add, there are plenty of high-quality teachers who are not board certified.
Those teachers "work as hard every day to close that (achievement) gap," she said.
Harry Brown, deputy superintendent for curriculum and operations in Pinellas, said he was "excited" to see board certified teachers were spread out as much as they were. But he also said he is not convinced there is a link between board certification and student gains.
"Just because they're national board certified, are (their) children achieving any better than students at any other school?" he said.
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Trying to figure out which teachers are the best may be the most vexing issue in education today. Are teachers better because they've been teaching longer? Because their kids get better FCAT scores? Because the principal says so?
Within that bigger debate there is hardly a consensus on how good board certified teachers are.
The most exhaustive study, released in June by the National Research Council, concluded board certified teachers squeeze bigger learning gains out of students. But it did not resolve disagreement about whether those gains are slight or significant.
Regardless, many states — including Florida — pay board certified teachers as if they are the best. Since 1998, Florida has paid them bonuses equal to 10 percent of an average teacher's salary, which came to $5,322 last year. And until the Legislature cut funding last spring, many of those teachers got another 10 percent for mentoring other teachers.
The incentives spurred a boom. In 1999, 546 board certified teachers got bonuses. Last year, 9,610 did.
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Altogether, board certified teachers make up less than 7 percent of teachers in Florida. But supporters say they have an impact beyond their numbers, particularly in schools with a critical mass of them.
The eight board certified teachers at St. Petersburg's Meadowlawn Middle School "raise the rigor in the classroom," said principal Valencia Walker.
Walker said all eight earned the certification while they were at Meadowlawn. And she expected others to follow suit.
But if they do, they'll be going against the grain.
To gauge how distribution in board certified teachers may have changed over time, the Times compared the most recent figures to data from three years ago. In Pinellas, the gaps have barely budged. But in Hillsborough, they've narrowed slightly.
One possible reason: an incentive program Hillsborough offers to hundreds of teachers who remain in a cluster of two dozen high-poverty schools. The incentives — 5 to 10 percent increases in base pay — aren't geared specifically to board-certified teachers. But they may have nonetheless led to an increase.
In 2005, seven of those schools had board certified teachers. Now, 23 of them do. The number of board certified teachers in them has grown from 11 to 52.
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Few districts in the country have incentive programs that specifically target board certified teachers. And the ones that do report mixed results.
A few years ago, the Columbus, Ohio, district began offering board certified teachers $3,000 to teach in high-needs schools. But less than a dozen teachers have taken advantage, said Rhonda Johnson, president of the Columbus Education Association. With average teacher salaries in Columbus around $60,000, $3,000 isn't "attractive enough," Johnson said.
Supporters say policymakers must consider more than just financial incentives.
The Charlotte, N.C., district had success luring board certified teachers to struggling schools after the superintendent first re-assigned principals, said Joseph Aguerrebere, president and CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
"I think most of us would say more could be done in this area," Aguerrebere said about the distribution of board certified teachers. But "people have to ask the question, 'Why is it that these schools are deemed unattractive to work in?' The schools have to address these issues."
Times staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek and Letitia Stein contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873. Donna Winchester can be reached at Winchester@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8413.