Diane Caporino taught in Orleans Parish schools for 22 years before the state fired her along with 7,000 other school employees in 2005. With her Gentilly house ruined and her career shattered, she spent a year on unemployment while living in a FEMA trailer, worrying about her future. Today, she’s still in the trailer waiting for Road Home money to finish work on her house but she’s also starting her second year teaching English as a Second Language in St. Tammany Parish, a career move she says is well worth the 40-minute drive.
“I love being treated like a professional,” Caporino says. “It’s a wonderful experience.”
Chances are the Recovery School District, (RSD) – the state-created agency that took over most Orleans Parish schools after Katrina – would be delighted to take Caporino back. In addition to having a master’s degree and lengthy experience teaching at-risk children, she’s certified in two subjects. Such credentials are hard to come by these days because of a teacher shortage that has many districts all over the country scrambling to meet federal requirements for putting only “highly qualified” teachers into every classroom. The No Child Left Behind legislation’s mandate is particularly tough for the RSD, which faces the daunting task of reconstructing a major urban school system practically from scratch. The district limped through the 2006-‘07 school year, short on teachers and facilities. These problems increased class sizes to a student-teacher ratio of 30 to one in some cases.
However, Paul Vallas, the RSD’s new superintendent, is confident that the district will have enough teachers for the 2007-‘08 academic year, no matter how many latecomers the district may recruit during the year. Enough, he hopes, to reduce class sizes to 20 students to one teacher. He says the district offered positions on the assumption that it would enroll about 40,000 students, which is more than expected. “We want to err on the side of surplus,” he says.
Teachers unions, still seething about the state’s elimination of collective bargaining, scoff at such confidence. The American Federation of Teachers, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the United Teachers of New Orleans criticized the district’s hiring practices in a 35-page report released in June, accusing the district of hiring inexperienced and uncertified teachers to the detriment of academic quality.
Christian Roseland, spokesperson for the United Teachers of New Orleans, says the RSD’s teacher recruitment problems are the consequence of its own “irresponsible actions.” Many veteran teachers don’t want to return to New Orleans schools, Roseland says, because they feel “abused and disrespected.” About 700 teachers found positions in surrounding parishes, he adds.
Caporino says she wanted to return to an Orleans Parish school because she feels a special bond with New Orleans students but after she submitted an application in spring 2006 on a Web site for Louisiana schools, she received two offers in St. Tammany before the RSD contacted her. The RSD’s e-mail asked her to take a basic skills test, she says, and to bring two pencils with her. The e-mail cinched her decision to accept one of the offers in St. Tammany.
“I was indignant about the test,” Caporino says. “I have a master’s degree, I’m a reading specialist and I have to prove that I can read at an eighth grade level?” The request to bring pencils also indicated to her that she would have to buy her own supplies, which she’d done for 22 years. “I spent hundreds of dollars for years and years,” she says. “Every teacher did. After the storm, I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
With so many former teachers staying away, the state has turned to recruiting nation wide and offering signing and retention bonuses, a tactic that’s becoming more common in areas where shortages are critical. In June, for example, Clark County, Nev., the fifth largest school district in the country, reported a shortage of more than 1,000 teachers for this academic year, despite paying signing bonuses of $2,000.
The recently released unions’ report on the RSD’s schools says that the teacher shortage in New Orleans has turned into a “full-blown crisis,” leading the district to hire mostly inexperienced teachers, a charge that the new superintendent denies.
“There’s a misconception that we’ve brought in all new people,” Vallas says. In reality, he says, former New Orleans teachers comprise 65 percent of the teacher pool for the fall. Moreover, 80 percent of the support staff has returned to work.
The unions complain especially about Teach NOLA – an organization that helps recruit and quickly train new teachers. Its formula closely mirrors the Teach of America program – a popular nonprofit group that recruits recent graduates from prestigious universities from all over the country and places them in trouble-ridden urban schools, where the need is greatest. The recruits are trained in an intense five-week summer program before they take over a classroom. Many nights, after teaching for eight hours, they participate in three-hour seminars that lead to “practitioner” teaching certificates. Teach NOLA’s Web site says it’s looking for “people who have little or no teaching experience but are driven to succeed.” In fact, the group says that applicants’ college degrees don’t need to be in the area that they teach – as long as they can pass a state-administered subject content test.
Union leaders call this type of recruitment detrimental to student achievement because research shows that teacher quality is the most important factor in learning. “To put out a ‘no experience necessary’ sign is no way to advertise for quality teachers,” Roseland says.
Many school leaders, however, willingly recruit the very inexperienced teachers that the unions criticize. In some cases, principals actually prefer them to veteran teachers. Teach for America teachers, for example, are some of the most sought after teachers on the recruitment market.
Brian Riedlinger, chief executive officer of the Algiers Charter Schools Association, says that when he was a principal he tried to retain a teaching staff balanced between inexperienced and experienced teachers. New teachers bring new ideas, he says.
Some principals also say that they pursue newcomers because their sense of mission is strong and they’re often more knowledgeable of the subject matter they teach than experienced teachers or certified teachers fresh from university education programs.
“I’d rather have energy, dedication, creativity and subject knowledge than an education degree with little substance,” says Barbara MacPhee, former director of the New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School.
Even though the Teach for America training program is short in duration, MacPhee says that past working experience with 21 Teach for America teachers has proven to her that they come out of their five-week summer session knowing even more about the craft of teaching than the average graduate of an education program. “I’d rather have a dedicated teacher from Teach for America than have a teacher who is experienced and certified but just going through the motions,” she says.
Teach for America has placed about 100 new teachers in RSD schools for the coming year, mostly in traditional schools, says Mary Garton, executive director of Teach for America. “A lot of charters have asked for them,” Garton says, “but we’ve been saying no because we didn’t have enough folks for everyone who needed them. They’re very much in demand.”