nikolai_vitt-rennina_turner-luis_solano_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

MIAMI — A comprehensive study of Miami-Dade public schools has found that hiring better teachers will significantly boost the performance of students in Liberty City, Miami’s major inner city community.

“If you take a first grader, assign him to a highly effective teacher, he would read at the 11th-grade level by grade eight,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). “But take that same first grader and place him with a non-effective teacher and by 8th grade he will read at grade level four.”

Walsh presented the study results during the Feb. 15 community discussion held at the Urban League of Greater Miami’s Freedom Hall, 8400 N.W. 25th Ave. in unincorporated Miami-Dade County.

Only 15 percent of teachers “are that great,”  Walsh said, adding that only “one in seven kids gets that teacher.”

Research shows that a student needs a highly effective teacher for at least five years, Walsh said. “And the odds of being randomly assigned a great teacher are one in 17,000,” she added.

The two-year study, conducted by NCTQ, was commissioned by the Urban League, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the Beacon Council and the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce which is the umbrella organization for black businesses in the county.

“We need to take all of our resources and close the achievement gap,” said T. Willard Fair, the league’s president and CEO. “I am a product of a racist and segregated society and my parents believed that through education the ways of life in the black community would change. The strong family unit is the key to our progress.”

Fair said Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ District 2, which includes Liberty City, has 57 schools and “their progress must be effectively measured.”

Walsh said the school system has made “incredible progress” but problems still loom, with only 33 percent of students meeting the proficient level on the NAEP tests.

“Yet when you look at teacher evaluations, all of their ratings appear to get the same: 99 percent satisfactory,” Walsh said. “That makes it look as if the teachers are great and the kids are failing.”

Pablo G. Ortiz, provost at Miami Edison High School in the nearby Little Haiti community, said “satisfactory does not mean great. It means satisfactory.”

A different caliber of teacher is needed for the students, Ortiz said. “Some of those qualifications cannot be seen or found in an evaluation,” he said.

Gigi Tinsley, vice president of the Joint Alumni Coalition of Greater Miami, also took issue with the ratings, arguing teachers should not all get 99 percent and “that’s not even a true number.”

“One tool should not determine the life of a teacher and definitely not [the life of] a student,” Tinsley said.

One of the problems with finding quality teachers to work in the school system  is its late hiring practice, according to Walsh. “It waits too late in the season to hire so you don’t get the best teachers you can get,” she said.

William Aristede, principal of Booker T. Washington High school in the historic Miami neighborhood of Overtown, countered that when teachers plan to quit they do not give notice until the last minute, “They want to maintain their benefits… Their contract states that all they need to give us is a 30-day notice,” he said. “By August we need to have everything in place and that leaves us looking to hire close to the school-year opening date.”

Aristede pointed out that schools do not deliberately seek out the worst teachers. “We only look for the best and that’s hard for us,” he said.

Walsh raised another point, stating that highly effective teachers must be rewarded for adding value to the classroom. Last year, only 10 teachers of about 20,000 in the system were fired for poor performance.

“There is a problem with holding teachers accountable,” Walsh said. “In the 2010-11 school year, 800 teachers lost their positions but none lost their jobs. In addition, 300 to 350 new teachers were let go.”

Walsh added that principals are not observing the teachers enough and are not held accountable for quality. But Luis B. Solano, principal of Miami Norland High School in Miami Gardens in north Miami-Dade County, rejected that contention. He said he completes from five to 10 teacher observations daily. “We know the only way we will transform the schools is to live inside of the classroom,” Solano said. “This way, I better understand my students and the teachers.  That’s the only way to close the gap.”

Liberty City resident Leon Butrell said he found the data from the report “really important” but he was upset that parents were not present

“It’s sad that the kids aren’t learning and nobody can agree on why. But, more important, I’m mad because there are no parents here. We need to have more meetings like this and [parents] need to attend,” Butrell said. “I hope some folks will wake up soon because the future for these kids without education is dark. Really dark.”

Cynthia Roby may be reached at

Photo:  Miami-Dade County Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, left, chats with Miami Central High School Principal Rennina Turner, center, and Luis Solano, principal of Miami Norland High School, during a community discussion Feb. 15 of a report calling for better quality teachers in Liberty City.