Courtesy of Facebook

The following is an in-depth examination of how teachers can transfer within JCPS in light of the coming teacher contract deadline and how critics say the current contract keeps the least experienced teachers in the most underperforming schools.

When Cathy Gibbs took the helm at the persistently low-achieving Knight Middle School in April 2014, becoming the school’s fourth principal in three years, she found that teachers just didn’t want to be there. Twenty of the school’s 28 instructors left that summer.

“The school was … not in a good spot,” Gibbs said.

Only four or five JCPS teachers wanted to transfer to Knight for the 20 open positions.

Catherine Gibbs

The contract between JCPS and the teachers union, Jefferson County Teachers Association, prevents administrators from moving teachers from one school to another without the teacher being willing to move.

JCPS critics say the contract, which expires June 30, often leaves the least experienced teachers with the kids who are struggling the most. One proposed solution: Give administrators the authority to deploy teachers as they see fit.

However, education experts told Insider Louisville that said such an approach is unlikely to be successful and might actually backfire.

How teachers move about Jefferson County Public Schools is governed by a complex set of factors, including teacher experience, job openings, the number of applicants and whether the school is a “Priority School,” meaning low-performing or consistently underperforming.

Each winter, usually around February, teachers indicate whether they want to leave their current assignment and they can list as many as 10 schools to which they would like to transfer.

If the schools on their list have an opening, the principal or hiring committee of that school can, and in some cases must, interview the internal candidates.

For example, if 10 JCPS English teachers applied for a coveted position at duPont Manual High School, the principal there has to interview the eight most senior candidates, which means the least senior candidates won’t get to move that year — at least not to Manual — and no external candidates can be interviewed for that position.

The JCPS/JCTA contract also stipulates that principals can choose from at least four — but no more than eight — teaching candidates, which means that if fewer than four JCPS candidates applied for an open position, the principal could interview external candidates — though the principal would not have to if she likes and wants to hire the first candidate she interviews. The external candidates can be experienced teachers from another district, or inexperienced newcomers, either recent graduates or those switching careers.

Priority schools get priority

Brent McKim

Consistently underperforming schools are exempted from some of the hiring mechanisms. For example, “absolutely no teacher goes into a Priority School without the principal’s approval,” said JCTA President Brent McKim.

“If a principal doesn’t like who is applying to transfer in, he or she can hire a new hire,” McKim told Insider.

Essentially, a Priority School principal can interview as many internal candidates as apply and as many external candidates as necessary to find the right teachers.

Priority principals also get the first look at the JCPS transfer list, which means, for example, if Knight Middle School had an opening for a biology teacher, and a biology teacher from another school indicated that she would like to transfer to one of a number of schools including Knight Middle, Principal Gibbs would know the teacher’s intention before principals at the non-Priority Schools on the teacher’s list.

Whichever school offers the transfer-willing teacher a job first gets the teacher, meaning that, at least theoretically, the Priority Schools have a one-week head start.

However, in practice, the mechanism does not always provide an advantage to the Priority Schools because those schools, like any other, may not have an opening when the list is revealed.

Teachers sometimes leave schools late in the school year, or even during summer or just before the new school year starts, at which point the teacher who had indicated a willingness to move to the Priority School, may already have been snatched up by another JCPS school.

Teachers who have indicated a willingness to transfer are disincentivized from declining an offer, because if they do, they are removed from the transfer list and cannot transfer within JCPS that summer.

For Gibbs, who needed to replace 20 teachers the summer before her first full year as Knight principal, the contract made things simple: She could interview the four or five internal candidates — but didn’t have to — and she could interview and hire any teacher from outside the district.

Of the 20 teachers that Gibbs hired during the summer, 17 were new to teaching, either recent college graduates or people who had worked in the private sector and switched to teaching, including a former attorney who now teaches history.

“The applicant pool was pretty much brand-new folks,” Gibbs said.

The school’s average teacher experience dropped that summer from 5.3 years to 3.6 years. The district average that year was 10.8 years, according to Kentucky Department of Education data.

And that, JCPS critics say, is a problem.

Best teachers for the most privileged kids?

Richard Innes

Richard Innes, an education expert with the Bluegrass Institute, which strongly supports a state takeover of JCPS, said that the contract between the union and the district prevents JCPS administrators from most effectively deploying their human resources.

Under the contract, inexperienced teachers and recent graduates often get into JCPS by applying to underperforming schools for jobs generally viewed as less desirable, Innes said. But once they gain a few years of experience teaching students with more difficult backgrounds, they typically move to more desirable teaching positions in schools where kids deal with fewer challenges outside of the classroom.

That means, Innes said, that precisely at the point where young teachers have the proper experience to help students in underperforming schools, they go to schools where their experiences with underprivileged kids are not needed — or at least less so.

“That has to change,” he said.

In most government areas, and certainly in the military, employees are moved where they are needed most, Innes said. School districts, too, must be able to pair the best teachers with students who are struggling the most to avoid squandering precious district resources, he said.

Teachers work for the school district — not for an individual school, Innes said, and so long as contract rules prevent administrators from moving teachers where they can have the greatest impact, scores at persistently underperforming schools are going to continue to remain low.

Former JCPS Chief Business Officer Tom Hudson said the assignment plan traps students, especially minority students and those from challenging backgrounds, in a continuous cycle of inexperienced teachers.

“The implicit racial discrimination that exists within JCPS as a result of the teacher assignment process is inexcusable and corrosive,” Hudson wrote in an email to Kentucky Interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis last month.

Hudson wrote that seniority allows teachers to transfer from Priority Schools to higher-performing schools, which tend to have fewer student behavior problems. That process leaves Priority Schools with predominantly nonwhite students, with the least-experienced teachers and the highest level of teacher turnover. This “perfect storm of consequences” represents institutional racism, he wrote.

JCPS told Insider that teacher retention rates at Priority Schools in the last three school years have averaged 81 percent, about 8 percentage points lower than non-Priority Schools. The retention rate in the just concluded school year was 82.8 percent, at least a three-year high.

The average number of teachers who request a transfer from Priority Schools is about four, the district said, about the same as for non-Priority Schools.

McKim said some of the attacks on the union are specious.

“We need to explore all sorts of strategies for attracting and keeping teachers at challenging schools,” he said, “but it is naive to think we can force a teacher into any school against her or his will and trap the teacher there.”

Moving a teacher against his will, especially in a district the size of JCPS, could cause significant disruption in that teacher’s life. Could the district move a teacher who works and lives on the west side of the city into a school on the east side, possibly requiring a long commute or even a move? What if the teacher has children who attend a west side school? What if the teacher’s spouse works on the west side?

That kind of approach, McKim said, would prompt fewer teachers to apply to work at JCPS and would encourage a greater number of current JCPS teachers to leave for other districts — or other professions.

“And that,” he said, “hurts students across the entire district.”

Innes acknowledged that moving teachers who would rather stay where they are may be unpopular.

“Not everybody is going to be happy with it,” Innes said. “(But) what’s going on now isn’t working. The job needs to be done.”

Difficult situations sometimes require tough choices, Innes said.

“If teachers don’t want to go where they’re most needed, maybe they shouldn’t be in the business,” he said.

In Tennessee, the creation of Achievement Schools Districts to improve underperforming schools in 2011 resulted, at least initially, in high rates of teacher and student departures, according to a 2015 Vanderbilt University study.

In the first year after the ASD takeover, “83 percent of the teachers departed for jobs at other Tennessee schools … compared to a 30 percent turnover the year before,” according to a Vanderbilt news release.

“However, those numbers have now leveled off and the ASD schools have added more high-performing teachers, in terms of value-added scores, than they lost, which ‘suggests that these schools hired higher quality teachers than they lost,’ said co-lead investigator Ron Zimmer, associate professor of public policy and education,” the release read.

Meanwhile, student turnover, at 37 percent, remains “high relative to higher-achieving schools.”

“In addition to creating an educational challenge, students leaving or entering a school could provide a signal of whether the schools are perceived as effective by the community,” said co-lead investigator Gary Henry, Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Public Policy and Education.

One area on which Innes and McKim, the union president, agree: providing incentives could help teachers remain at or move to underperforming schools. However, McKim said that so long as the state keeps cutting funding, JCPS will have a tough time finding revenue to pay for incentives. And JCPS said that the research on the efficacy of such incentives is mixed.

Data from Knight Middle School support at least some of the JCPS critics’ complaints. The average teacher experience at Knight Middle was 4.5 years during the 2016/17 academic year, less than half the average experience for teachers across the district. At Jefferson County Traditional Middle School, a high-performing school, teachers have an average experience of 16.6 years.

Test scores at Traditional Middle are much higher, with nearly 75 percent of students scoring proficient or distinguished on the reading portion of last year’s K-PREP exam — compared to 38 percent at Knight Middle. Nearly two-thirds of Traditional Middle students achieved the same bench mark in math — compared to about one-fifth at Knight Middle.

While the schools reside in much different locales — Knight Middle is on the far south end of town near the Interstate 65 and Interstate 265 interchange, while Traditional is in the Highlands — the schools have a similar racial composition, with Knight having a slightly smaller share of white students and a slightly larger share of black students. Knight Middle has a significantly higher share of Hispanic students, but those students still account for only a small portion of the overall student body.

A bigger difference between the two schools is their students’ socioeconomic status: At Traditional Middle, about four out of 10 students participate in the free or reduced lunch program. At Knight Middle, it is more than eight out of 10.

Greater teacher experience also is not a guarantor for better academic test results. KDE test data show that in some JCPS middle schools where teachers have significantly more experience than their colleagues at Knight Middle, students have lower — sometimes much lower — test scores.

For example, at Westport Middle School, where teachers in 2016/17 had an average experience of 7.3 years, or about 62 percent more than their colleagues at Knight Middle, a slightly lower share of students scored proficient or distinguished in the K-PREP reading portion. And at Frederick Olmstead Academy North, where teachers had an average experience of 7.9 years, or about 76 percent more than teachers at Knight Middle, only 16.9 percent of students scored proficient or distinguished in math, 4.6 percentage points fewer than at Knight Middle.

Turnaround through culture, clarity, consistency

Principal Catherine Gibbs with students. | Courtesy of Facebook

Gibbs said that teaching experience is only one factor that provides insight into a teacher’s abilities.

During that summer before her first full year as principal, Gibbs said that the lack of experienced applicants for the open positions forced her to hire inexperienced teachers — but it also freed her to focus on people with the right attitude: Those who believe that the students, despite their challenges outside the school day, can succeed.

“Work can be hard,” Gibbs said. “Sometimes we can get into a fixed mindset.”

Even more important, she said, was that the teachers had the ability to convince the students that they could succeed.

“It starts with that belief that change is possible … (and) achievement is possible for every student,” she said.

Gibbs said she understands that’s sometimes difficult, especially for the kids. Nearly 85 percent of the Knight Middle School’s 450 students are on free or reduced lunches, and many of them face economic instability, homelessness, physical abuse and parents with addictions.

“There’s a lot of stuff that goes on in a child’s life,” she said. “We deal with things that happen out there … every day.”

That means, Gibbs said, that before teachers can get the students to focus on learning, they may have to help meet the students’ more basic needs, such as rest, food and safety.

“We have some grim stories,” Gibbs said, “but this is not a grim place.”

Her leadership team met over that summer to talk about how to effect a turnaround.

“We knew that we had to invest in people, and we had to build a community, and we had to make sure that we were all … going in the same direction,” Gibbs said.

Building a community meant involving the students. School staff held focus groups to ask the kids how they would like the school changed. They said they wanted teachers who care about them and respect them.

In some cases, the students got a bit more sovereignty. Between classes, rather than moving kids en masse and along lines on the floor, the students themselves get the autonomy — and trust, or respect, from the staff — to make sure that they get to the other classroom on time and without shenanigans.

“Giving them ownership … and making them part of the conversation … was the buy-in,” Gibbs said. “The kids love their school now.”

The staff made sure to impart the lesson that with greater opportunity comes greater responsibility. Teachers and administrators set high expectations in academics and behavior, Gibbs said, and articulate those to students with clarity and consistency.

A typical morning announcement at Knight Middle School.

That consistency starts with Gibb’s announcement every morning, in which she reminds students of expectations, opportunities to do good, responsibilities to help — rather than harm — and to use “kind words and friendly tones.”

When Gibbs hears a student use a bad word in the hallways, she asks, “Excuse me, did I hear you correctly? What kind of language do we use?”

The expected answer: “Kind words and friendly tones.”

“It’s everybody saying the exact same things,” Gibbs said.

The approach requires continuous improvements and staying positive, but building community results in creating cohesiveness, she said.

Everybody understands their role and why they’re working in the system and that if they don’t, the system falls apart, Gibbs said.

In a 2015 diagnostic review, KDE officials said that Gibbs “appears to be a change agent” and “is perhaps the greatest strength of the school, as she has successfully garnered the support of internal stakeholders in collaboratively enhancing the culture of the school.

“Before her arrival, staff morale was very low, and a feeling of abandonment permeated the school. Stakeholders of Knight Middle School seem to have experienced revitalization and are displaying new attitudes and mindsets,” the review read.

“Although many teachers new to the school are inexperienced, the principal provides instructional coaches to support them in developing effective instructional skills and strategies. In addition, she has instilled a sense of hope in staff and students despite of the numerous challenges that plague the school.”

However, reviewers also wrote that despite many positive initiatives, they “did not find evidence of a sense of urgency” regarding the schools’ greatest challenge: instruction and rigor. Reviewers also cited a “lack of consistent monitoring and accountability, minimal stakeholder involvement in decision-making, and a lack of parent involvement in their children’s education.”

Expert: Teachers aren’t widgets

Gibbs said she has a hard time envisioning how a school, and a system built on trust, community and cohesiveness could work with teachers who would rather be elsewhere or who don’t know whether they’ll be allowed to remain in the school the following year.

“I want teachers that want to be here, period,” Gibbs said.

Giving administrators the authority to move teachers without their input would create challenges, she said, because teachers may not want to move from their current job.

Some may not want to move to a different home, while others may not want a long commute. Some may prefer working in a larger school with lots of colleagues in the same department. Others may have worked in a Priority School previously and may not want to return to such a setting.

Jane West, a consultant for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, said giving administrators the authority to move teachers as they please has pros and cons.

To make such a system work would require the state and districts to cooperate and adopt the same strategy.

“Otherwise,” she said, “you just get principals fighting for people.”

“Moving teachers around like widgets … is problematic,” West said. “It’s definitely got a downside.”

Ann Larson

Ann Larson, dean of UofL’s College of Education and Human Development, said that moving teachers from a school with high-performing students to one where students struggle, would not necessarily — and certainly not immediately — produce a turnaround.

Teachers have many skills that they can take with them from one school to another, but teachers acquire some of their skills, such as cross-cultural competence and understanding how to access support services, by being in certain environments.

“I just think that it’s a little more complicated,” she said.

And, she said, if she were a principal, she would want teachers with great skills — but also with a will and eagerness to tackle the challenges that the school’s students face.

Larson also said that while many Priority Schools hire the youngest and most vulnerable teachers, districts can take actions to improve outcomes for students in challenging situations. One of those, she said, is to have Priority Schools led by very strong principals who are passionate about the work, can attract teachers who are properly prepared for the complexities in urban settings and can establish a core cadre of teachers they retain for years.

UofL tries to address some of those challenges by sending its student teachers early and often to Priority Schools, Larsen said.

The dean also said that the challenges with which JCPS is grappling mirror those encountered by districts across the nation.

“There are no easy solutions,” Larson said. “If there were, they would have been employed already.”

Knight Middle School teacher Sarah Esler talks to students. | Courtesy of Esler

Sarah Esler, 24, one of the teachers who joined Knight Middle before Gibbs’ first full year, said she very much enjoys the school’s culture and kids — but that would change if she knew that administrators could transfer her any time.

Implementing such a system also would be ironic, she said. While teachers and schools are doing their best to empower students, to engage them, give them ownership and to refrain from an authoritative style of teaching, the state would be taking the exact opposite approach toward its teachers.

If the state wants great teachers to inspire great students, they have to empower teachers, said Esler, who teaches seventh-grade English.

A system in which teachers could be moved by administrators at will is “completely infeasible,” she said, in part because it discounts the relationships that teachers have to build with administrators and students, often over years, to be effective as educators.

Esler said that allowing administrators to move teachers from high-achieving schools to persistently underperforming schools would not produce better academic outcomes.

“It’s such an oversimplification of what it means to teach,” she said.

Teaching is difficult and complicated, and teachers usually do 50 different jobs at once, she said, and every interaction with students has to be thoughtful and strategic, which requires understanding the students and their individual circumstances.

Meanwhile, even with fairly inexperienced teachers, student performance on academic tests at Knight Middle School have improved under Gibbs’ tenure, especially in reading — though test scores already had improved quite a bit before she took over. Gibbs said that performance has improved enough for the school to no longer be classified as persistently underperforming, though that’s difficult to say because the state is changing the way it identifies persistently underperforming schools.

Knight Middle School’s discipline problems also have diminished, according to KDE data: The school had recorded 258 suspensions in the 2013/14 school year, among the highest of the district’s 26 middle schools. In the 2016/17 school year, that number had dropped 65 percent, to just 90. Only five JCPS middle schools had fewer suspensions that year.

The school’s reputation is improving: Only two teachers indicated they plan to leave the school this summer — and neither because they disliked the school, Gibbs said.

The number of teachers on this year’s JCPS transfer list who want to come to Knight Middle: 14.