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Published in Print: March 6, 2002, as Teaching & Learning

Teaching & Learning

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Teacher Distribution Hurts Poor Schools, AASA Warns

Efforts to improve high-poverty, low-achieving K-12 schools are doomed to failure unless school districts change the way in which teachers and administrators are assigned to their buildings, a report from the American Association of School Administrators asserts.

Under the current system, the best and brightest are hired by the most affluent districts and placed in high-performing schools, writes Cynthia D. Prince, the issues-analysis director for the Arlington, Va.-based organization. Meanwhile, teachers with the least experience and knowledge take jobs in the poorest districts and are placed in the most troubled schools.

The report discusses recent research on the distribution of teachers and concludes that "high-achieving school districts seldom encounter problems filling teacher and administrator vacancies. School systems with high concentrations of poor and minority students, on the other hand, must generally make do with much smaller pools of qualified applicants."

Reasons for the distribution problem include:

  • Salaries and benefit packages are determined locally, and thus affluent communities can provide more competitive offers than their poorer counterparts;
  • Seniority clauses in union contracts allow veteran educators to choose their placements;
  • States prohibit administrators with hiring authority from obtaining failure rates on teacher-certification tests;
  • Districts don't give principals the authority to hire teachers; and
  • Cumbersome district policies prohibit highly qualified veterans from transferring to low-achieving schools.

"The Challenge of Attracting Good Teachers and Principals to Struggling Schools" is available at www.aasa.org /issues_and_insights/issues_dept/challenges.htm or by calling (703) 276- 1604.

Evaluating Standards

A National Research Council panel has put forward recommendations to help researchers judge how math, science, and technology standards are influencing classroom practice and how well students are learning.

While many researchers are beginning to assess the impact of standards, they aren't proceeding in uniform ways, according to the Committee on Understanding the Influence of Standards in K-12 Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education, which was convened by the NRC.

"Public conversations about the worth and impact of standards in mathematics, science, and technology—or about standards-based reforms in general—will continue," the panel writes in a new report. "The framework offered here is intended to help the education research community contribute to that debate with reasoned voices based on evidence and sound inference."

The committee suggests that researchers find out what teachers and administrators think of a particular set of standards and their impact, review curriculum materials to see how they've changed since the standards were unveiled, and identify policies that came about because of the standards. They should also tackle questions about how teacher preparation is changing in light of the standards, the committee says.

In analyzing student achievement, meanwhile, researchers will need to study whether the assessments intended to measure progress reflect what the standards set out to achieve, the reports says.

"Investigating the Influence of Standards" can be ordered from the National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Ave. N.W., Lockbox 285, Washington, DC 20055; (800) 624-6242; www.nap.edu.

Turning Out Teachers

A professional scientist or mathematician will be able to get an $18,000 grant, a Harvard pedigree, and a job in the Boston public schools through a new program aimed at finding individuals to teach hard- to-fill subjects.

With a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Harvard University's graduate school of education will establish a one-year program in which midcareer professionals can earn master's degrees and teaching credentials in math or science.

While working toward the degrees, the teacher-candidates will receive $4,000 stipends and internships with the city schools that pay $10,000 over the course of the school year.

Upon graduation, qualified candidates are guaranteed a job teaching in Boston with a starting salary of $42,000—a typical salary for a first-year teacher with a master's degree—and will get a $4,000 stipend for participating in professional development offered by the university.

The project provides midcareer professionals with income while they earn teaching certificates, overcoming a common barrier for those who want to leave their jobs for the classroom.

The Transition to Teaching Math and Science program is a joint project of the university, the city schools, and the Boston Plan for Excellence, a private group advocating school improvements for the 63,000-student district.

Adding Up Calculators

Starting next year, Texas high schoolers will need graphing calculators as they've never needed them before. And the question is: Who will pay for them?

The situation is not exactly new, state education officials hurry to explain. Since 1997, when Texas put in place new academic standards, the curricula for algebra, geometry, and chemistry have required the pocket-size devices. But next year, the state plans to launch new high school exit exams in the 11th grade, with the math and science tests devised for students who have their calculators at the ready.

"We'd like to see one calculator for every student," said DeEtta Culbertson, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. "At the same time, we're realistic."

She said state officials are looking at ways to help districts get more of the calculators, which plot equations and help students visualize mathematical relationships. Officials will also consider staggering the administration of the test over three days to reduce the demand for calculators on any one day, she added.

One TEA administrator has estimated that districts are currently about 96,000 calculators short of the ideal. With calculators costing around $90 a pop, that's an $8.6 million expense to be borne by districts or parents.

Texas law apparently permits districts to pass the cost of calculators on to parents, but many do not want to take that approach. Already students whose families can afford the electronic instruments have them full time, while others have to make do with in-school use only.

"Houston Independent School District will be supplying the calculators" for the tests, said spokeswoman Lisa Bunse. "It's under discussion how."

Literacy Mediocrity

Only 53 percent of Americans from 16 to 65 have the minimum literacy skills considered necessary to succeed in today's labor market, placing the United States in the middle of the pack among other high- income nations, says a report by the Center for Global Assessment.

Moreover, the gap between U.S. citizens with the highest and lowest levels of literacy proficiency is far greater than in most other developed nations. The problem could threaten the United States' leadership in the global economy, according to the report, "The Twin Challenges of Mediocrity and Inequality: Literacy in the U.S. From an International Perspective."

The report is based on an analysis of data from the National Adult Literacy Survey, a national sample of U.S. residents 16 and older, and the International Adult Literacy Survey. The international survey examined the literacy proficiency of adults in 23 developed nations, including the United States, from 1994 to 1998.

In the latter study, three measures were considered, including prose literacy, or the proficiency to draw information from various texts; document literacy, or the ability to locate and use information from maps, bus schedules, job applications, and other sources; and quantitative literacy, which includes using numbers and applying mathematical equations to such tasks as balancing a checkbook.

The U.S. ranked ninth on the prose scale, 14th on the document scale, and 13th on the quantitative scale, though the mean score for American adults on the last measure was not considered significantly different from higher-ranking countries'. The United States ranked 12th overall.

The poor results are attributed in part to the United States' large immigrant population. Large gaps existed as well between the performance of blacks and Hispanics and their white peers. But when the performance of American whites was compared with that of their counterparts in other countries, the U.S. standing on the international assessment was still mediocre.

—Julie Blair, David J. Hoff, Bess Keller, & Kathleen Kennedy Manzo inclass@epe.org

Vol. 21, Issue 25, Page 18

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