Commentary: Celebrate progress in teacher retention

By Sarah Davasher-Wisdom

Tucked away in the new Jefferson County Teachers Association contract is a provision that takes a bold leap forward in lifting up our lowest-performing schools: offering bonuses to teachers working in priority schools, a simple strategy for addressing a complex problem.

The story behind the JCTA contract is a great example of our community coming together to get our public education system in Jefferson County back on the right track.

Sarah Davasher-Wisdom, Chief Operating Officer of Greater Louisville Inc.

A fundamental dilemma facing the lowest-performing schools in Jefferson County is the entangled issue of teacher attraction, retention and experience. As Greater Louisville Inc. CEO Kent Oyler wrote back in March, many of the schools in the district with the lowest student success rates have chronically struggled to keep good teachers and often look to a rotation of first-time teachers to fill vacancies. The impact of constant turnover and low levels of experience on student outcomes in these schools speaks for itself.

This year, GLI set about finding solutions to this problem. In our research, we learned that, in other states and communities, providing teachers with financial incentives beyond the standard single-salary schedule proved to be an effective tool for combating high turnover rates and attracting experienced teachers to underperforming schools.

GLI also learned that Kentucky experimented with this very approach in a largely forgotten (and now defunct) pilot program from 2003 to 2005. A study of the program revealed it to be hugely successful in helping a Jefferson County schools reverse high staff turnover rates and may have even had a direct positive impact on student outcomes despite its short life span.

The idea of using additional pay to give teachers an incentive to work in low-performing schools, however, turned out to be more complicated than it seemed on the surface.

State law requires public school teachers to be paid in accordance with a “single-salary schedule,” based strictly on years of experience and academic credentials. Kentucky law offers some wiggle room but not much. For example, Kentucky teachers with National Board certification can receive a salary supplement. There are also financial incentives for teachers who take on additional duties.

Even so, based on our study of state law and conversations with education policy experts throughout the commonwealth,  statutes either flat out prohibited or, at the very least, inadequately addressed the idea of allowing local districts to offer monetary bonuses to teachers working in priority schools.

We decided to try to change that.

Working directly with state policymakers, GLI played a key role in developing and supporting Senate Bill 152 in the 2018 legislative session. This bill sought to authorize and clarify the ability of districts to provide “monetary compensation in addition to that provided through the single salary schedule” to “all classroom teachers employed” in a priority school.

With the support of lawmakers like Senator David Givens and Representative John Carney, Senate Bill 152 enjoyed widespread, bipartisan support, passing the State Senate 37-0 and the State House 90-3.

Given all of the hard work that went into Senate Bill 152, we were naturally thrilled to see JCTA and JCPS take advantage of what Senate Bill 152 authorized. The new contract provides teachers working in underperforming schools with an annual stipend of $1,600, which research suggests could help these schools retain staff and cut down on year-to-year turnover.

In addition, the contract seeks to attract experienced staff by offering one-time $1,000 bonuses to teachers with eight years of experience or more who transfer to an underperforming school. As I said, this is a smart approach to addressing a major problem plaguing our schools.

JCTA, Superintendent Marty Pollio, and the Jefferson County Board of Education all deserve credit for making teacher retention and attraction at underperforming schools a priority in this most recent round of contract negotiations.

I am glad that GLI was able to play a role in laying the groundwork for tackling this issue. But, of course, we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking that a single piece of legislation or a single contract provision is going to solve all of the problems facing JCPS. Rather, I say we use this story as a template for success.

In seeking to transform JCPS into the best urban school district in the country, we have to be innovative, we have to do things that are difficult, and, most importantly, we have to work together.

Sarah Davasher-Wisdom is the chief operating officer of Greater Louisville Inc.