State News

March 9, 2014

Atlanta aims to invest more in teachers

Atlanta’s new school board is betting that an investment in teachers will pay off more than attempts to reduce class sizes.

The city Board of Education plans to give teachers and staff a raise, eliminate furlough days and move up hiring dates so the school district can compete for the best teachers. At the same time, average class sizes would remain at the maximums allowed by the state, which can vary based on grade level and subject.

School board members say the size of the classroom isn’t as important as the effectiveness of the person in front of it.

“Would you rather have a large class size with a great teacher, or a small class size with a not-so-great teacher?” said board Chairman Courtney English. “The choice between the two would hopefully be obvious.”

While smaller class sizes can help students learn, English said, limited education money is better spent on educators who haven’t received a pay increase in six years.

The school board is considering raises of 3 percent or 4 percent for all staff in next year’s budget, which is expected to be completed in April. The budget would also eliminate furlough days, which often landed on days that would otherwise be used for professional development.

By finalizing the budget well before June, when it was approved last year, Atlanta Public Schools could attract teachers who are looking for jobs at the same time as other metro Atlanta school systems are hiring.

The school board plans to continue average classes as large as 20 students for kindergartners and up to 28 students for high-schoolers in core courses.

Reducing class sizes by five students citywide would cost $22 million; in comparison, the cost of a 3 percent pay raise would be $11 million, and eliminating three furlough days costs $4.5 million, according to budget estimates.

The effort to reward teachers for their work follows a struggle over class size last year, when the school board hired 78 additional teachers.

Those teachers were assigned to schools where they were needed most, but the increased number of teachers didn’t put much of a dent in average class sizes.

But class size does make a difference, according to a recent report by Northwestern University professor Diane Schanzenbach. She found a variety of research indicates students learn more   and teachers are more effective in smaller classes.

“Of course it matters — and so does teacher quality,” said Schanzenbach, an economist in Northwestern’s school of education and social policy. “There’s no question that investing in our kids by having both high-quality teachers and preferably small classes ... makes a lot of sense.”

Seventh-grade language arts teacher Tiffany Mitchell said a pay raise would help her provide extra supplies to students. When her classrooms run out of No. 2 pencils, pens, copy paper, scissors and markers, Mitchell spends more than $200 a year from her own pocket to replenish her supply closet.

“This increase not only makes me feel valued as an educator, but it also helps me give back to my students,” said Mitchell, who teaches at Inman Middle School. “We’ve been talking about how happy we are that we’re being valued again.”

Atlanta already pays its teachers more than surrounding school systems, with salaries starting at $44,312 — about $4,000 to $7,000 more than its neighbors. The city school system has for many years paid a higher rate as an incentive to teach in an urban educational environment.

“We all want to be acknowledged for the hard work we do,” said Rita Simmons, who teaches gifted classes at Cleveland Avenue Elementary and is the school system’s 2013-2014   teacher of the year. “We love our children and we don’t spare any expense when it comes to making sure our children get what they need.”

Higher pay could help school systems like Atlanta’s find and retain talented teachers, but there’s no “silver bullet” when trying to solve educational challenges, said Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology for the University of Pennsylvania.

“As an individual teacher, I’d love to have my pay raise, but it’s not necessarily going to make me do a better job, particularly if I’m already working at capacity,” Ingersoll said. “Pay alone isn’t necessarily going to turn things around.”

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