RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
Here's one explanation for why many poor and minority students do worse in school than white students: Poor and minority kids get less effective teachers.
NPR's Larry Abramson is tracking an effort to change that fact. And, Larry, where does that effort take you?
LARRY ABRAMSON: It took me to North Carolina, Steve. As you know, the state is going through big demographic changes right now. There are a lot of immigrant children coming into the state. And so they're experiencing a tremendous teaching shortage right now, and they're particularly worried about boosting the scores of these poor and minority children that are making up a greater proportion of their schools.
INSKEEP: Which is something that schools across the country are facing because of this federal No Child Left Behind Act. Everybody's being forced to try to improve their standards.
ABRAMSON: That's right. It's no child, meaning all children, including immigrant children and minority kids who were ignored to a great extent in the past. And so North Carolina is focusing in on how they can raise those test scores by attracting more effective teachers. And as I was doing this, I ran into some amazing professionals, like Bill Ferriter. He teaches sixth grade at a relatively affluent school just outside of Raleigh.
Mr. BILL FERRITER (Teacher): Three, two, one, time. What's your answer Nishawn Meyer(ph)?
Mr. NISHAWN MEYER (Student): A demand?
Mr. FERRITER: Yeah, I heard them say demand in there…
ABRAMSON: Steve, we're listening to the sixth graders at Salem Middle School. They're like putty in the hands of veteran teacher Bill Ferriter. He's using a Halloween song that he found online to help explain some new vocabulary words.
Mr. FERRITER: Where else have you heard the word ransom used? Because maybe your back…
Unidentified Student: (Unintelligible)
Mr. FERRITER: Hold on now. Maybe your background knowledge can help you figure out what ransom means, too, because it's a little bit more than just demand.
ABRAMSON: Ferriter has his own unique, nuclear-driven teaching style. He's in charge, but he's still a kid. When he laughs, the kids laugh. When he sets them to work coloring in a map of the Roman Empire, he somehow manages to give individual attention to every kid.
Mr. FERRITER: Okay, do you see this island right there?
Unidentified Student #2: Mm-hmm.
Mr. FERRITER: Yeah, and there it is right there, right?
Unidentified Student #2: Yeah.
Mr. FERRITER: Do you know what that island is? This is called the Republic of Ireland, okay?
Unidentified Student #2: I think I like Ireland.
Mr. FERRITER: You like Ireland, well there it is. Good, now you found out where it is today. That's pretty outstanding. Did you have another question while I was here?
Unidentified Student #2: No.
Mr. FERRITER: All right. Sweet.
ABRAMSON: Ferriter has won so many teacher-of-the-year awards he can barely fit them all on the trophy table in his classroom. He loves his job in this well-off suburban school just outside Raleigh. But he also feels guilty.
Mr. FERRITER: I personally wrestle with my decision to teach in an affluent school. It's something that I feel a great sense of shame over.
ABRAMSON: Ferriter says that like many of his peers, he came to his current school because of an inspiring administrator who helped create the right learning environment.
Mr. FERRITER: Just because I've been successful in an affluent school does not mean that I'll automatically be successful in a high-needs school.
(Soundbite of crowd noise)
ABRAMSON: But William Ferriter is just the kind of teacher they'd love to have just up the road at Hairston Middle School in Greensboro, North Carolina. Hairston has been cited for failing to raise test scores two years in a row. Ninety percent of Hairston students get free and reduced-price lunches. Principal Lewis Ferebee was brought in to turn things around, and he made a good start. But he says it's hard to attract top talent to a school stamped with that government label - In Need of Improvement.
Mr. LEWIS FEREBEE: There's always this fear that if a school is in improvement that there's going to be added pressures and stress to perform. And when people have choices, you know, a lot of times they don't want those types of stresses on them.
ABRAMSON: Hairston certainly does not look like a problem school. The building is less than five years old. The roomy classrooms still sparkle. The athletic facilities gleam. The spacious library has an aquarium and a cool collection of globes. Terry Grier, the superintendent of Guilford County Schools, met me in that library to talk about the desperate teacher shortage that led him to design a new program.
Mr. TERRY GRIER (Superintendent, Guilford County Schools): Last year we had one of our elementary schools that had all new teachers in grades three, four and five. This middle school here did not have a certified math teacher all year long. It's, quite frankly, something we won't tolerate.
ABRAMSON: Grier's response to this teacher shortage is Mission: Possible, named, unfortunately perhaps, in a burst of optimism after the latest Tom Cruise movie came out. Starting this year, teachers can earn up to $15,000 in annual bonuses for working in targeted schools. To get the biggest bonuses, teachers must show they've increased student test scores by a certain margin. Superintendent Terry Grier says teachers have long been rewarded for seniority.
Mr. GRIER: Now what we have said in Guilford County, not only are we going to pay you differently based on experience and degree, we are also going to pay you based on whether or not you get strong academic results from your students learning. What we were doing before was not working and it was cheating children out of a quality education.
ABRAMSON: Superintendents around the country have long insisted they need to be able to transfer the best teachers to troubled schools. Union contracts often prohibit such transfers, and some unions resist higher pay for higher test scores. Teacher Bill Ferriter says, put too much pressure on teachers, and they'll just jump to a new job.
Mr. FERRITER: If we offer incentive bonuses to teachers and recruit them to working at situations where the working conditions are impossible, then those teachers aren't going to stay working with the highest need students.
ABRAMSON: In states where the severe teacher shortage, like North Carolina, administrators often end up competing with their colleagues for the best teachers. But this policy debate begs a bigger question: Just who is the best teacher for kids in need?
Unidentified Woman #1: Does this sound like they're taking this case seriously?
Unidentified Group: No.
Unidentified Man: Not at all.
Unidentified Woman #1: Why not?
ABRAMSON: This is West Mecklenburg High School, another school in need of help in Charlotte, North Carolina. This school's turnaround principal has recruited a 24-year-old second year teacher named Rhiannon Riley. She's teaching the novel Monster, a disturbing tale of a 16-year-old accused of murder. The kids are eating it up.
Ms. RHIANNON RILEY (Teacher): He is a 60-year-old New York judge, and already was bored with the tape.
ABRAMSON: Some experts might point to the scene as an example of the problem -low-income kids being taught by a newcomer. But West Meck's principal regards Reilly as a star. And this teacher says her youth is a plus.
Ms. REILLY: I think it almost is better if I'm a new teacher because the kids realize they can relate to me a little bit. And that's not saying that more experienced teachers don't do a great job, because they do. But I have a lot of energy, you know, and I can devote a lot of my time to this because I don't have a family and I don't have other things going on outside school.
ABRAMSON: Rhiannon Reilly gets extra money to teach here, but she says she spends a lot of that bonus on supplies for her kids. She loves teaching at West Meck and seems to thrive on the pressure to succeed.
Ms. REILLY: It's on everybody, but our jobs are on the line, too. If my kids don't score 55 percent or more on their tests, then I don't get to keep my job. And they know that. My kids know that. I know that. The whole community knows that.
ABRAMSON: And that's it because you're in a (unintelligible)?
Ms. REILLY: Yes, sir.
ABRAMSON: Charlotte's Mecklenburg and other districts are now focusing on recruiting teaching teens, younger teachers led by experienced mentors. And the hope, Steve, is that will make the jump to a challenging school a little bit less lonely.
INSKEEP: We're listening to NPR's Larry Abramson who's been talking with teachers in North Carolina. And, Larry, I have to ask why not simply force? Why can't government simply force teachers to go where it seems they are most needed?
ABRAMSON: Well, you know, you can in some places, and that tactic is sometimes employed with less effective teachers. You tell them, look you either go to the school or we're going to begin the process of firing you. But of course you don't want to do that kind of thing with your most effective teachers. You're basically hitting them over the head and asking them to do your most challenging job. You want these people to stay in your school, because if you punish them for not going to a challenging school, they may just leave and go to the suburbs or somewhere or to another state.
INSKEEP: You did mention earlier a teacher shortage. Is there any effort to actually increase the number of effective teachers so there's enough to go around?
ABRAMSON: There is. It's a process called board certification of teachers that tries to raise the professional standards of teachers. And we're going to be talking about that process a little bit more tonight on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
INSKEEP: Okay, we're be listening. That's NPR's Larry Abramson. Larry, thanks.
ABRAMSON: You're welcome.