Are There Qualified Teachers in Camden's Classrooms?

Today’s NJ Spotlight reports on the Senate Budget Committee’s “polite questioning” of Ed. Comm. Chris Cerf, specifically regarding whether Gov. Christie’s budget shortchanged local districts through adjustments to the School Funding Reform Act (see Education Law Center's views in the post below) and the inevitable loss of federal stimulus money. From Spotlight:
Cerf defended the changes as mostly minor, but was also adamant that additional funding for some of the state’s most troubled districts is no longer the answer. He cited Camden schools, which spend more than $50 million above what the formula deems as adequate but still has many of the lowest performing schools in the state.
Instead of the money, Cerf said, “have we done everything in our power to ensure a qualified teacher in the classroom? I seriously doubt that.”
Okay, let’s look at Camden City. Camden High is too wretched to play the part in any non-histrionic discussion, so we’ll move over to East Camden Middle School, which serves 392 kids in 6th-8th grade. For a little context, Camden City Public Schools has a total enrollment of 13,000 kids, 32 schools, and a total operating budget of $303,635,179. (These are 2011 numbers from the DOE database.)

Is it possible to determine whether or not there’s “a qualified teacher in every classroom?” Let’s try, using data available from the DOE.

The kids who attend East Camden Middle School are mostly black and Hispanic, and just about everyone is economically-disadvantaged. For example, among the 115 7th graders who took the state assessment in language arts, 62 are black and 95 are Hispanic (some are both). Every single child is classified as economically-disadvantaged.

How’d they do on the standardized test? 68.8% of them failed the ASK7 in language arts, 30% were deemed “proficient,” and none were “advanced proficient.” Math scores were worse, except that 3% of kids were rated “advanced proficient.”

The children perform poorly. But what can we glean about teacher proficiency? One indicator could be faculty mobility: how many teachers quit each year, increasing the odds that students will be instructed by long-term or short-term substitutes? At East Camden Middle, 17% of the faculty entered or left the school during the 2009-2010 school year. The state average is 4%. There’s a challenge right there.

Another factor in quality instruction is daily consistency. One aspect of this is faculty attendance and at Camden Middle the rate was about 2.5% below state levels: 93.4% of East Camden teachers are present on each day.

The degrees attained by faculty – whether they have bachelors’, masters’, or beyond – are comparable to other districts.

Here’s what’s not comparable: salaries. The staff in Camden teach children with great needs, extending from impoverished backgrounds, widespread learning disabilities (21.7% of the kids who attend East Camden Middle School – more than one in five – are classified as eligible for special education services), and an unstable home life (the student mobility rate for the 2009-2010 school year was 34.7%). Yet the average annual compensation for teachers has dropped over the past few years, from $62,231 in 2008 to $60,373 in 2010. State averages for 2008 were $57,242 and $61,840 for 2010. So, while salaries in Camden were competitive in 2008– even on the high side, as they should be, -- by 2010 the average teacher in Camden is got paid less than a teacher working in far less stressful circumstances.

New Jersey does have a metric to rate teachers as “highly-qualified” or not, an NCLB requirement. But that’s all input, not output: teachers get designated as highly-qualified if they took the right courses and passed the praxis test. It has nothing to do with actual teaching. Most of NJ public schools list 100% of their staff “highly-qualified.” At East Camden Middle School it’s also 100%, which may tell us more about the low bar for a teacher to achieve “highly-qualified” status than anything else.

Here’s what we do know: the faculty mobility rate is very high and the salaries are relatively low. On the other hand, Camden Public Schools’ annual budget lists its total comparative cost per pupil at $19,549. Should more of that budget go to teacher salaries? Combat pay, anyone? Signing bonuses? NJEA has reiterated its opposition to differentiated salaries. But in what other profession do employees get paid less for taking on more challenging work?

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