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Published in Print: March 22, 2000, as Students in Dire Need of Good Teachers Often Get the Least Qualified Or Less Experienced

Students in Dire Need of Good Teachers Often Get the Least Qualified Or Less Experienced

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One way to shrink the academic gap might be to make sure that every minority student gets a good teacher.

A growing body of research suggests that those students who, arguably, most need the best teachers are getting just the opposite. By and large, the studies say, poor and minority students have a disproportionate share of poor-quality or unqualified teachers.

The disparities can be striking. In the New York City schools, for example, the percentage of teachers who have failed national teacher-certification exams is three times higher than it is elsewhere in the state. Similar patterns show up in Texas and Tennessee.

Even in racially mixed schools, it’s often common practice to reward senior or better-qualified teachers with the most advanced courses—classes that typically have disproportionately fewer minority students.

"It’s clear that if we want to close the gap, we could do it in a short period of time if African-American kids were systematically taught by our best teachers," argued Kati Haycock, the executive director of the Education Trust, a Washington group that promotes challenging coursework for all students.

The trouble is that achieving that goal is a politically combustible, hugely complicated task—and one that may even work against some other remedies proposed for improving minority achievement.

Recruiting better teachers to hard-to-staff urban schools might mean redistributing qualified teachers or prodding teachers’ unions to relent on longstanding policies advocating equal pay for equal work.

But the problem of differing academic outcomes has become so pressing that even the unions are taking a second look at the matter.

"We are ready to tackle some of these tough issues," said Segun C. Eubanks, a senior professional associate in charge of teacher recruitment and retention issues for the National Education Association. "We believe every teacher who teaches our students should be fully qualified."

Class Size vs. Teacher Quality

Never has the importance of top-quality teaching been more clear than now, as schools nationwide gear up to hire an estimated 2 million more teachers over the next decade. If states and districts follow through on their efforts to raise the bar for teachers entering the profession, the competition for qualified teachers is likely to become intense.

While all students suffer when they have a second-rate teacher, the problem gets more complex when viewed in the context of the achievement gap between minority and white students.

For example, efforts to raise standards for teachers potentially conflict with another common strategy for improving minority achievement: reducing class sizes in schools with large minority populations.

In Tennessee, which in the 1980s launched the largest experiment to date on reducing class sizes in the early grades, researchers found that all students learned more when taught in classes of 15 to 17 students.

But black students benefit even more. After kindergarten, the learning gains African-American students made were typically twice as high as they were for white students. Improvements were even more dramatic for black students in inner-city schools.

But when California tried in the mid-1990s to reduce class sizes in the early grades on a massive, statewide scale, the result was a big increase in the number of people hired to teach in urban schools who had only "emergency" credentials. In many cases, better-qualified teachers had been lured away to higher-paying, more desirable jobs in suburban schools, which were also scrambling to qualify for the state class-size-reduction money.

"Those are two policy goals that contradict one another in practice, and we really don’t know from the research which matters more," said Meredith Phillips, the co-editor, with Christopher Jencks, of The Black-White Achievement Gap, a 1998 book that explores the problem of disparate academic performance.

Another problem: Raising teacher-certification requirements might further shrink an already-small pool of minority teachers. African-Americans constitute 15.5 percent of the K-12 population in the nation’s schools, but only 6.8 percent of the teaching force. The proportions are much the same for Hispanic children and teachers.

Increasing the supply of such teachers has long been a goal for districts and schools of education. The hope is that those teachers will be role models for minority students, and that they will teach in ways that are culturally compatible with students from their own racial or ethnic groups.

"I feel different when I have a black honors teacher, like I do in math," said Courtney Conwell, an African-American 8th grader at Shaker Heights Middle School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a racially mixed suburb of Cleveland. "I feel more comfortable."

But do minority students really learn more with a teacher who looks and talks like them? The research is mixed on that question, according to Ronald F. Ferguson, a Harvard University economist who has reviewed such work. Some studies suggest that it helps; others show no effect.

In one study of nearly 800 Baltimore schoolchildren, for example, Johns Hopkins University researchers found that a teacher’s social class was just as important as race. In that study, the teachers who produced the best results with African-American students were black teachers from poorer family backgrounds and white teachers from more affluent families.

Defining ‘Good’ Teachers

"I think we do need more minority teachers, but I don’t think that’s the critical issue," said Mr. Ferguson, who is African-American. The relevant question, he believes, is whether students will be better off if states raise their teacher-certification requirements. "I think the answer is yes," he said.

Mr. Eubanks of the NEA argues, however, that educators shouldn’t have to choose between lesser evils.

"What we have found is that there is a pool of capable people of color who are willing to teach in hard-to-staff schools," he said. "It’s just a matter of how you recruit them and support them." Too many districts, he said, use shortcuts to bring teachers in on "emergency" teaching credentials or through alternative-certification routes.

Scholars increasingly agree that having an effective teacher of any color is vital to a child’s learning progress. In Tennessee, for example, where researchers have been using sophisticated "value added" methodology to analyze student scores on state exams, studies have found that the effects of a good—or bad—teacher can linger for years. In that research, 5th graders who had had for three years in a row teachers the study ranked as highly effective scored above the 80th percentile on state reading and mathematics tests. Conversely, 5th graders with three consecutive years of ineffective teachers scored below the 50th percentile.

What social science hasn’t yet figured out is how to determine who the good would-be teachers are. According to Mr. Ferguson, studies so far show that teachers with degrees from better colleges or with higher scores on standardized tests seem to have the edge. But more years of teaching experience do not automatically translate into higher student achievement.

"The definition of ‘excellent’ has to be thought through carefully," said Jacqueline Jordan Irvine, a professor of urban education at Emory University in Atlanta. "Some teachers, even though they have high test scores, cannot teach specific content to specific kids."

She said teachers of minority children must also, for example, be able to draw on their students’ prior knowledge and to link it to the concepts they are trying to get across. One way education schools can produce teachers with that skill, she said, is to provide them with internships that take them beyond the school walls and into the neighborhoods, churches, temples, and mosques of their students.

Schools in El Paso, Texas, meanwhile, succeeded in narrowing academic differences between student racial and ethnic groups—and in raising achievement overall—by improving the skills of the district’s existing, largely home-grown teaching force. Partnering with a local university, school officials began summer and monthly training sessions and mentoring programs for teachers.

And as important as a teacher’s instructional skills, most of the experts, parents, and students interviewed in recent weeks agreed, is the belief among teachers that every student, regardless of skin color, can achieve at high levels.

"When you first encounter a low-performing kid, it’s hard to imagine this kid will not always be low-performing," said Ms. Phillips, also an assistant professor of policy and sociology studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. "We have to help teachers understand that kids’ skills are malleable."

Vol. 19, Issue 28, Pages 18-19

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