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Special education advocates press OUSD to hire more experienced teachers

By Katy Murphy
Monday, June 6th, 2011 at 5:13 pm in special education, students, teachers.

In the last two years, teaching candidates from Oakland Teaching Fellows and Teach for America pretty much had a lock on all open special education positions in the Oakland school district.

All but three of the 70 new hires during that time period were teachers placed in Oakland schools through one of those two programs, according to a report the school district released today.

But district staff say in the report that is about to change:

This year, we made no job guarantees with OTF or TFA, so we’ll group partner program teachers and all external hires in same pool, so principals and program coordinators will be able to make the selection they deem the best fit.

The report (posted in full, below) was issued in response to a public records request from the local Community Advisory Council (CAC), which advocates for special needs children. The CAC has also questioned why the district’s in-house training and credentialing program for new special education teachers only admits interns — brand new teachers who are earning their credentials as they teach — rather than fully-credentialed general education teachers who want to make the switch.

District officials said OUSD’s special education training program is only accredited to work with intern teachers (half are from Oakland Teaching Fellows; half are from Teach for America), but that the idea of opening it up to experienced teachers “has enormous potential.”

The council is holding a meeting at 6 p.m. tonight at Metwest High School, 314 E. 10th St., to discuss OUSD’s strategic plan — and presumably, this report — with district staff.

Quick stats from the report, which includes some interesting charts and tables detailing retention rates of its teachers, by year and subject:

    • As of February, there were 311 special education teachers in OUSD. Of those, 60 teachers (19 percent) held intern credentials, rather than full credentials, and 144 (46 percent) had at least five years of experience in OUSD.
    • Since September 2008, 135 special education teachers have left OUSD for reasons other than retirement.
    • Teachers who work with severely disabled children are more likely to stay than those who teach children with more moderate disabilities.

    The retention rate for OUSD’s special education teachers, while low, looks high compared to what’s happening in math and science. Especially math, which loses more teachers than any other subject. (Less than 60 percent of the math teacher interns hired in 2009-10 came back for a second year; less than 10 percent of those hired in 2006-07 are still in an Oakland classroom.) I wonder what’s going on there.

    Here’s the letter the CAC sent to the district this spring, outlining its concerns:

    Letter from special education advocates to OUSD
    Here is the report OUSD released today: Intern teacher retention in OUSD

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    • castlemontteacher

      Thank you for posting this information Katy. I will make it clear that I am a special education mild-moderate teacher who came through OTF. I just want to share a couple things from my experience:

      1. As far as retaining mild-moderate special education teachers, it is difficult. Why? I teach a caseload that started at 26 (as a special day class) and am expected to teach 4 prep periods with differentiation. To add to this, I have not had an aide 1/2 of the time I have been teaching…

      2. I work with administrators that are extremely supportive of special education and go far beyond to make sure that we are included as well as supported. This has made a HUGE difference in the student’s education as well as for me and my workload.

      I love my job and the young people I work with. But, I also see the inequity within special education in Oakland (between schools, depending on where you work and with what student population) along with the extreme exit rate of teachers. I would LOVE to see change being made for this group of students.

    • Katy Murphy

      Thanks for sharing your experiences with us, castlemontteacher. What kinds of things do your administrators do to support you and your students? How many years have you been teaching (and will you be back next year)?

    • castlemontteacher

      I am finishing up my 2nd year and I will be back next year.

      The admin team has ensured that students with IEPs are included in the general education classes (when appropriate), works with PEC to advocate for things such as an aide, smaller case load that matches with other schools in the district, and helps with behavioral challenges when they arise.

      The culture at my school has changed a lot since I first started there because the administrators have been so willing to work for this specific population of students. I think it is crucial that SPED gets support from general education teachers, administrators and PEC (Programs for Exceptional Children).

    • Oakland Teacher

      Great story Katy. There are, however, real inconsistencies in the data provided. Sorry to be a numbers cruncher, but I noticed that when you add the numbers in the data provided by OUSD, (OTF= 5+29+19 and TFA=17) the total Interns hired is 70, not 60 as stated. That means that:

      1. The percent of Special Ed teachers who are working under an intern credential is actually at least 23%
      2. Out of 73 Special Ed teacher hires in the past 2 years, only 4% have had credentials and 96% of the hires have been interns
      3. When the total number of Special Ed teachers is added together it comes to 294 full time equivalents, not 311 as stated in the letter. If this is accurate, that would actually make the % of interns equal to 24%. If you take out the 10 teachers listed who are not working directly with students (TSA’s), then the number goes up to 25%. If you consider that there are more than ten TSA’s in special education (some of them have not worked for 5 or more years in OUSD), then the numbers change even more.

      How can a school district have had a policy in place that essentially locks out qualified teachers and hires only inexperienced interns for students who need teachers with additional, not less skills?

      We may have shortages in Special Ed, Math, and Science teachers, but to intentionally hire only completely inexperienced people (as they obviously have been doing in Special Ed) is nothing short of an outrage. If I was a parent, I would be most unhappy about the direction the district has taken. An interesting question might also be, were any of the three hires given real, not temporary contracts? Or were they hired under temp contracts to finish out the school year when one of the interns quit?

    • Turanga_teach

      It’s worth noting that OUSD cut its mentoring supports to Intern teachers. I previously supported 2 new special education teachers who came through OTF, and I was slated to support 2 more, but budget cuts came around and, ironically, Beginning Teacher Support was specifically denied to folks who were on the MORE beginning end of things.

      When I was part of the BTSA system, I was placed with a new hire who was given the same exact assignment that had made me almost leave the teaching profession as a new hire years ago–an 8-child autism SDC where my 1 paraprofessional literally had to barricade me into the room when he went on his lunch break, because we had 5 students whose behavior issues included running out of the class. He took over from a cast of subs, who took over for a person who took over from a person who took over from me. All were new, uncredentialed teachers–all left but him. It was heartbreaking for me to see how little conditions and supports had changed and how stacked the odds were against his continuing.

      He’s still teaching that program: my hat is off to him. And I can only support him under the table.

    • Katy Murphy

      Hey, number crunching is nothing to apologize for!

      I also got 70 when adding the number of new interns hired in the last two years (See paragraph 2). But I think 60 figure refers to something different: the number of interns who were teaching in February of this year. If someone was hired in 2009 but quit in 2010, she wouldn’t show up in the total.

      Not sure about the 311 vs. 294. I’ll check it out.

    • Sue

      After 14 years of SPED services from OUSD, absolutely nothing here is a surprise to me. I’ve seen it all… first year teachers quitting mid-year, experienced teachers leaving the district for better working conditions, administration that didn’t support the classroom teachers, general ed teachers who didn’t listen to/work with/respect the SPED teacher (and one general ed teacher who actively threatened a SPED teacher – who left the district) trying to help and support the teacher and student involved.

      You name it, my family has gone through it, somehow. what sticks with us is the people with the heart, the courage and the will to hang around and keep doing the job and getting better at it. I’ve had the privilege of meeting and getting to be friends with some of the finest human beings I’ve ever met.

      Today, my son is taking his third of four finals at CSUEB. His GPA for the first two quarters was 3.8, and we have high hopes for spring quarter to be as successful as the last two have been. He wouldn’t be where he is today without OUSD SPED teachers who did their jobs in spite of all the district’s problems and failures.

      Not everyone is cut out to do this job, but the ones who have succeeded are my heroes – especially the ones who started out as interns and brand new teachers and learned and got better as they went along. Nothing against the new ones who didn’t last, and I hope they found success elsewhere. It’s an incredibly difficult job, even without the extra challenges in our district.

      How do we retain more teachers? I don’t know. I’m not even sure it’s possible, or desirable. When someone tries it and finds s/he isn’t right for the job of SPED teaching, it’s probably better for them to move to something else – definitely, it’s better for the students, our most vulnerable, not to have a teacher who isn’t right for the job. And I don’t think anyone can know whether this is their calling and their career before they’ve been in it.

      It is a trial-by-fire.

    • AlgebraTeacher

      Math teachers leave because we get lay off notices in March and won’t let the district play games with our future employment. So we start looking for jobs elsewhere and get hired.

      Also, I see a lot of people choose math as a teaching profession without having taken any math classes in college. Unfortunately it isn’t a requirement to have a degree in math to teach math in California. So these teachers end of being overwhelmed by the fact that their students need a teacher that knows the math inside and out.

      Lastly, there is no support. If you want to retain teachers, support them. And I don’t mean sending an annoying math coach to try to tell you what to do.

    • Stacey Smith

      Hi Katy,
      Thanks for sharing our CAC Advisory Letter and the public records response from the District. Our January request for the data you posted was originally intended to help inform the process of writing the Advisory Letter. It is important to have the data and to have the discussion about what it means and the implications for hiring and retention. But I want to emphasize that the broader intent behind the Advisory Letter is to improve educational outcomes for special needs students. The Letter includes a number of recommendations that address the hiring process but it also calls for improved support for special education teachers once they are hired. ALL teachers regardless of how long they have been teaching, how they were hired or how much training they have had to date. Ongoing professional development opportunities, mentoring and reduced caseloads are only a few of the many supports that can help improve both the quality of the educational experience and the quality of the professional experience.

      We don’t issue these letters often but when we do they reflect critical issues that are of widespread, ongoing concern to the community. That’s why we’ve asked that our recommendations plus other meaningful and measurable strategies for improved hiring, support and retention are specifically included in the 5-Year Strategic Plan. We’ve asked the Superintendent and Board to formally adopt all of our recommendations but the conversation doesn’t end there. We are committed to continue our advocacy work around this issue in the months and years ahead and we invite others to join us.

      Stacey Smith
      CAC Co-Chair
      cacoakland@gmail.com
      PS: We’ll post any further response or updates on our wiki: http://oaklandcac.pbworks.com.