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Teachers College grant brings benefits to Gadsden District

April 13, 2011

The Gadsden Elementary School District, representing eight schools and more than 5,000 students in southwestern Arizona, will benefit from a recent $43 million grant awarded to Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College by the U.S. Department of Education. The Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) grant will provide funding for comprehensive school reform in Arizona, including a performance-based compensation system for teachers.

“This grant is extremely important to the Gadsden district, it schools, teachers and students,” said district Superintendent Ray Aguilera. “The grant allows pay for performance incentives for eligible teachers and principals so they can earn additional monies otherwise not available for salary increases.”

The Gadsden district, located in the rural community of San Luis on the U.S.-Mexican border, includes six elementary schools, a middle school and a junior high school. Aguilera reported the district’s most pressing challenge is hiring qualified teachers in its schools.

“This will help us retain highly qualified teachers and principals,” said Aguilera, who has led the district as superintendent since 1999. “This collaboration with ASU, in our isolated district, is a major breakthrough in providing high-quality personnel for our community.”

The Arizona Ready-for-Rigor Project featured in the original TIF grant proposal was led by ASU in partnership with the Arizona Department of Education and the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching. The project is a statewide network of schools in partner districts serving high-need students. The goals of the project include increasing student achievement, retaining highly effective educators and fostering exemplary school culture in the highest-need communities across Arizona.

“This is an important recognition that Arizona State University is embedded in the community and sees as a core mission the improvement of PreK-20 education in the state,” said ASU President Michael M. Crow. “Bringing in these kinds of resources means that children in Arizona will benefit, communities will benefit, and our Teachers College will benefit through learning about how to best incentivize classroom teachers.”

Aguilera applauded Teachers College and ASU for creating meaningful university-school collaboration with his district over the years, including programs that have focused on teacher development, special education, distance learning opportunities for district teachers and more.

“The ASU partnership that began in 2007 with the Content Academy has grown and expanded since that time  to allow us to provide master’s-level coursework to teachers,” said Aguilera, who has taught doctoral courses as an associate professor at Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi, superintendent certification courses at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and also taught in the Tempe (Ariz.) Kyrene Elementary School District before coming to the Gadsden district. “ASU brought us a ‘grow your own’ program for teacher aides, taught by our administrators that allows these future teachers to obtain their bachelor’s degree in education. The end result is better-prepared teachers as they enter the classrooms as highly qualified educators.”

Through the TIF grant program, the Arizona Ready-for-Rigor Project will pursue three objectives: 1) use of a statewide Ready-for-Rigor Support Center to work with a network of 71 historically struggling, high-need schools to achieve four key outcomes at each site, including ambitious achievement goals and effectiveness ratings; 2) use targeted, higher-than-average teacher pay-for-performance bonuses; use targeted, technology-enabled and district-based principal and/or teacher preparation programs; and prepare, recruit and retain highly effective principals and teachers in the hard-to-staff schools and areas; and (3) contribute to the research knowledge base on performance-based compensation systems by participating in DOE’s national evaluation study.

The 71 schools served by the grant represent more than 46,000 students across 16 districts that have partnered with ASU and Teachers College on teacher development and site-specific supports necessary to bring about comprehensive school reform.  Gadsden is one of 10 districts located in urban areas, while eight represent rural settings.

“The opportunities inherent in this grant and our partnership with this district are many,” said Virginia McElyea, executive director of the Arizona-Ready-for-Rigor TIF award. “Improving teacher quality, retention and effectiveness through professional development, coaching, peer evaluation and incentive pay are all important areas that will be positively impacted.”

McElyea, who earned her Ed.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University of Georgia in 1985, said the grant will provide long-term benefits to the district and community as well. “This provides us the ability to build and sustain a school culture focused on student achievement. We will create a professional development infrastructure that will enhance teacher practices and devise an evaluation system that includes standards, ongoing feedback by peers on instructional data, and we will use the data to make ongoing instructional decisions for each student.

“The quality of schools, based on high teacher quality, enhances the community’s ability to attract businesses and employers; as the schools go, so goes the community,” she added.

“Leaders in education, commerce and politics accept as truth that Arizona students can perform up to the level of the highest performing U.S. states and international competitors on globally benchmarked exams,” said Scott Ridley, Teachers College associate dean and associate professor, who wrote the grant proposal. “We know that key institutions in Arizona have not worked together with a coordinated sense of urgency to improve student achievement, and we will change that through this important award.”

Ridley noted that, like other states, Arizona’s students perform at both the highest and the lowest levels on standardized tests and pointed to research that the performance gap is thought to be associated with a gap in teacher effectiveness.

“Arizona students from the highest-need urban and rural communities perform least well on standardized tests,” he said. “That’s where this school-university partnership for educational reform will begin.”

The university-school partnership model created by Teachers College, with districts across Arizona, has been recognized as a national example and awarded $97.2 million in federal and private gifts over the past two years to support its objectives. In 2009, Teachers College was awarded $35 million in DOE grants, and entrepreneur and philanthropist T. Denny Sanford made an $18.8-million investment in the school to create the Sanford Education Project to expand the relationship between Teachers College and Teach For America.

The Ready-for-Rigor TIF grant is part of a campaign to simultaneously reform schools in high-need communities and ASU’s teacher education programs.

“ASU, in partnership with high-need communities and school districts, plans to improve teacher education programs in these communities by creating schools which provide these future teachers with strong mentors, and show them how to use data to foster students’ academic achievement,” said Mari Koerner, dean of the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

“We believe that using good classroom teaching models and data-driven student achievement results, this statewide initiative will simultaneously transform partner schools and improve ASU’s previous teacher preparation programs.”

The most recent award to the Teachers College is part of a five-year $1.2 billion federal program that seeks to strengthen the education profession by rewarding excellence, attracting teachers and principals to high-need and hard to staff areas, and providing all teachers and principals with the feedback and support they need to succeed.

The winning applicants were selected by a group of 60 independent, expert peer reviewers. They were judged on their comprehensive plans to develop, reward and support effective teachers and principals in high-need schools, based on evaluations that include multiple measures, including student growth.

Applicants also were required to demonstrate a high level of local educator support and involvement and a plan for financial sustainability after the five-year grant award period. Applicants received additional points for using value added measures, attracting effective teachers in hard to staff subject or specialty areas, and for being a first-time applicant.

“The approach used by ASU in providing relevant, effective and district-specific training for our district is truly a model that should be followed by all university teacher preparation programs,” said Aguilera.