The Leadership and Moral Dilemma of Staffing K- 2 Under High Stakes Testing

By Lynette Guastaferro and Nicholas Smith

When the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001, schools began facing enormous pressure to ensure that their test scores measured up. Schools that fall behind can face real consequences. A recent study speaks to the unintended consequences of this pressure to perform well on tests; demonstrating that the majority of teachers deemed less effective in terms of test scores were moved out of the tested grades. This pattern is stronger in schools where the principal has more influence on where teachers are assigned. On the flip side, teachers in lower-grade classrooms who have performed well are more likely to be bumped up to tested grades.

"Principals face a near impossible decision. Do they put their best-performing teachers in testing years (grades 3, 4, and 5) to demonstrate high performance on standardized tests? Or do they put their best-performing teachers in the "investment years" of grades K-2, where children develop critical skills needed for the rest of their education? The recent study shows that the majority of principals opt to place their best teachers in testing grades, leaving K-2 students without critical support in the most formative years of their education."

Despite grades 3-5 being of more importance to testing outcomes, kindergarten through second grade are the grades where students get their foundation in important subjects like reading and math. If they don't get the attention that they need in those grades, the consequences can carry on far beyond elementary school.

"It's a lot of pressure," said a principal from district 7 who asked to remain anonymous. "It's like the foundation of a house," one school leader said. "Everything is built on top of it. Children are expected to jump six reading levels in first grade alone. Not only does good learning in the younger grades make later teachers' jobs easier, but if you fall behind at that point, you're always playing catch up."

Studies have linked third-grade reading levels to high school graduation rates, with students who are not reading at grade level by third grade being six times more likely to drop-out of school altogether.

"Without the ability to read well and reason well, children are at an enormous disadvantage," said Dr. Mary Ann Reilly, an expert advancing literacy in urban schools with Teaching Matters. "Without the ability to read at grade level, they can't access the meaning of text which is critical to building knowledge. As they hit the later grades, they are sunk. They'll fall further and further behind with every grade. Children who are even just a little behind in the lower grades will become six to nine months behind by sixth grade."

Sadly, the evidence matches up. The staffing study revealed that students who were learning under a "recently reassigned" teacher were making less progress than those with permanent teachers. This effect also carried over to third grade, where these students learned less than those who were reading at grade level. Students who learned under teachers reassigned to lower grades for poor performance demonstrated low learning gains in third grade, similar to children who had learned under an inexperienced second grade teacher.

So the challenge of strategically staffing teachers so as not to impact these critical early years is clear. Now, what can we do about it? Fortunately, principals have thought of ways to satisfy both ends of the spectrum working to make sure students do well on their tests while also ensuring younger students get the instruction that they need in these critical investment years.

When it comes to staffing strategies, two principals who have shown gains in student outcomes recommended placing their strongest teachers in early grades. "If you solve the problem from the bottom, the rest will go better," said Alexa Sorden, principal of Concourse Elementary School in the Bronx. Ms. Sorden, once a kindergarten teacher herself, explained, "we put very experienced and effective teachers at the bottom, in kindergarten. All my first grade teachers are veterans, for instance. I avoid putting brand new teachers in lower grades unless they're a natural. Our foundations are in K-2, and we see the rewards in 3-5."

Principals also spoke to the question of how to place a new teacher with little to no classroom experience without negatively impacting students. "New teachers face a huge learning curve," one principal said. Further, it is well documented that children from lower-income communities often serve as the training ground for teachers who end up teaching children in higher income suburbs once they have experience.

"I often try to put new teachers in an integrated co-teaching class (a type of class that serves both regular and special education students), where there are two teachers in the room" said one enterprising principal with over 20 years experience. "This way the heavy lifting can be done by the experienced teacher, allowing the less experienced teacher to focus more on learning the curriculum. I find it to be the best way to bring a new teacher in and next year, they may continue that way or be put in a class by themselves."

"If I had a new teacher," Sorden said, "I would make sure the children in front of her were children she could handle. For example, I would put a new teacher in a class where students get more support at home."

Another solution is reducing teacher-to-student ratios in those lower grades. Prior research, most notably the 1980s STAR project in Tennessee, points to smaller class sizes being better for student learning, specifically K - 3. "When I had 30 students in my classroom, it felt like an assembly line," Sorden said. "I was basically a drill sergeant. In such large classes, sometimes teachers just want to move the lesson along. You can't listen to everyone in that setting. In smaller class sizes, feedback is more fruitful and the conferences between teachers are more thoughtful. The students in the lower grades need more feedback and support, so smaller class sizes really help there as well."

Parents clearly agree as it has been shown that PTAs in New York City that have more resources are paying for teaching assistants in the lower years; an option clearly not available to higher poverty schools.

Of course, all of these solutions can only do so much good unless there is a strong push to implement them. "Principals need to be instructional leaders and smart staffing is part of skilled leadership," Sorden said.

However, Reilly cautioned against over-simplifying the problem. "There's no such thing as the 'best' teacher. The problem needs more finesse than that. Educational leaders need to think of their teachers' strengths and their students' needs."