One needs look no further than the imposing old school building at 1419
Nevada St. in East Toledo to see the difference that experienced teaching can make.
For three years, Raymer Elementary School had a stable fourth-grade teaching staff. Principal Sandra Wittenberg said proficiency scores showed the results of that.
But at the start of the 1998-99 school year, the three experienced
fourth-grade teachers left Raymer either temporarily or permanently. Sent in their place were two substitute teachers and a teacher who had no experience teaching fourth graders.
That year, the trend for higher state test scores ceased. Citizenship,
mathematics, and science scores fell, while reading and writing scores went up.
The following year, a long-term substitute who held only a temporary
teaching certificate was appointed.
Principal Sandra Wittenberg complained to then-Superintendent Merrill Grant about the appointment of what she considered an underqualified teacher to arguably the most intensely watched grade in Toledo Public Schools.
"He said, 'You're right, we shouldn't do that,' but he didn't do anything about it," Dr. Wittenberg said. "I was livid, but there was not a thing I could do."
Unlike in the suburban schools surrounding Toledo, principals of Toledo
elementary schools have no say in who works in their buildings. Those
decisions are based on teacher seniority dictated by union contract and
decisions made in the district's central offices.
Raymer's proficiency test scores fell in all five test areas in the 2000
To Dr. Wittenberg, the conclusion is clear: Inexperienced teachers yield
"The stability in the grade level and the experience does count," Dr.
Test results reported by the Ohio Department of Education show a general improvement in the five test areas from 1995-96 to 1997-98 and a general decline since then back to about the same level.
The falling scores stunned the staff, some of whom speculated that the tests were scored incorrectly.
"It was a complete shock to me," said Hope Hastings, a second-grade teacher.
John Hayward, one of the fourth-grade teachers who left for a two-year
assignment outside the classroom, is back this year.
"I'm just delighted to have him back," Dr. Wittenberg said.
He said he knows that experience - as in any profession - can pay off with better results.
"We had three teachers who were here in successive years so scores did go up. We learned from each other, and we got a little better at it," Mr. Hayward said.
He said he puts a lot of emphasis on motivating students.
"They've never taken a test this big. We give examples of the test. We talk a lot about it in class, test-taking strategies," Mr. Hayward said.
Raymer is one of the few Toledo schools with some experience in screening and hiring their own staff.
For five years, Raymer's principals and teachers were allowed to interview teaching candidates for their school under "site-based management."
It was an experiment tried at three schools, including Westfield in South
Toledo and Ottawa River in Point Place, approved by the teachers' union in response to pressure from business groups.
But in late 1997, Dal Lawrence, then president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers, refused to sign an agreement extending the pilot project.
"Raymer used to be able to interview teachers, and we no longer have that ability, and so we can't select people who have the same philosophy that we do and the same interest that we do in terms of directing instruction. I think that is a detriment," Dr. Wittenberg said. "If I had been able to select a substitute, I certainly would not have selected a noncertified sub for fourth grade."
Francine Lawrence, the new president of the 3,300-member teachers' union and wife of Dal Lawrence, said site-based management was abandoned because the design was flawed and many teachers did not like it. She said the administration agreed it should end, and she said site-based management led to no demonstrable improvement in student achievement.
"We did not say we would not engage in another site-based management model. We offered to negotiate another one with the administration, and they never worked with us," Mrs. Lawrence said.
Raymer still tries to maintain the sense of independence the five-year
experiment with site-based management gave to the school.
Mrs. Hastings - the daughter of former Toledo Mayor and school board member Harry Kessler - retains the title of instructional coordinator, a position that was created by the site-based management experiment. She said site-based management allowed Raymer to pick teachers who would give a little extra.
"The site-based management legacy is our willingness to do extra
activities," Mrs. Hastings said. "We were very strong when we could
interview our teachers and hire them. We could choose teachers who were on the same wavelength. When they just send you a teacher, that teacher may or may not be willing to do that."
Mrs. Wittenberg said a deeper problem than her inability to screen teachers is the pay Toledo sets for teachers. She said Toledo is losing teachers, and principals, to other school districts that pay more than Toledo pays.
Despite their concerns about the importance of a stable, qualified teaching staff, Dr. Wittenberg and Mrs. Hastings still believe there's only so much a school can do under difficult circumstances.
Dr. Wittenberg said Raymer's poverty levels are rising and that children are alarmingly unprepared.
"We are starting out behind. We took kids in who will be 7 who have never been in school," Dr. Wittenberg said. "We are playing catch-up from Day 1."
To the lay observer, Raymer appears to be trying.
The school sets a theme each year. This year it is reading, and posters and signs of activity are everywhere. Floors and walls are clean and bright, even for a 74-year-old building.
Parents have at least 16 scheduled opportunities a year to come into the
school and mix with teachers, administrators, and other parents to talk
about their children's education. On top of that, the school's library is
staffed by the school parent volunteer association.
Practice proficiency tests are given in the off-years, grades three and
five. During proficiency test week, the school is virtually under lockdown,
with no interruptions or other activities allowed during the two-hour
Class sizes have shot back up at Raymer. The sixth grades have 32 children, and the fourth grades have 27 children.
According to Dr. Wittenberg, the state's fourth-grade proficiency standards are too tough, developmentally, for fourth-graders. And she said, the tests are forcing schools to put all their emphasis on getting high test scores.
About 25 per cent of this year's incoming kindergarten class can recognize most of the letters of the alphabet. Dr. Wittenberg said pupil preparedness is closer to 75 per cent in an advantaged school such as Ottawa Hills Elementary.
"We need to start the educational process earlier for the majority of kids," Dr. Wittenberg said. "If we had 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds, we would be hitting them at prime time when they really soak up this stuff."