Special Report

Executive Summary: To Close the Gap, Quality Counts

By The Editors — January 09, 2003 6 min read
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For states to end the “achievement gap” between minority and nonminority students and those from rich and poor families, they must first end the “teacher gap": the dearth of well-qualified teachers for those who need them most.

Quality Counts 2003 focuses on that teacher gap, its possible causes, and its potential solutions. Our survey of the 50 states and the District of Columbia found that states and districts are taking steps to recruit and retain competent teachers, but those efforts generally are not aimed at finding teachers for high-poverty, high-minority, and low-achieving schools. Instead, state incentives are geared toward increasing the teacher supply overall or in specific subjects or regions. When states do target programs, they rarely keep track of whether those incentives are working, or where participants end up.

Research clearly shows the need to find qualified teachers for high-need schools. For this year’s Quality Counts report, Richard M. Ingersoll, an associate professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, analyzed public school students’ access to qualified teachers, based on the 1999-2000 Schools and Staffing Survey. That federal database, known as SASS, includes a statistically representative sample of teachers across the United States.


  • Almost a quarter of secondary school students (22 percent) take at least one class with a teacher who did not even minor in the subject he or she teaches. In high-poverty secondary schools, 32 percent of students take a class with a teacher who lacks even a minor in the subject.
  • Secondary students in high-poverty schools are twice as likely as those in low-poverty schools (26 percent vs. 13 percent) to have a teacher who is not certified in the subject taught.
  • About 44 percent of middle school students nationwide, and more than half of students in high-poverty middle schools, take a class with a teacher who hasn’t acquired even a minor in the subject.
  • By some measures, the teacher gap is considerable. About 70 percent of secondary students in low-poverty schools have teachers who have both majored in and become licensed in their subjects. Only about half of secondary students in high-poverty schools can say the same.
  • Students in high-poverty, high-minority schools also are more likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers. At the elementary level, fewer than 9 percent of teachers in low-poverty schools have less than three years’ experience, compared with more than 13 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools.

While it’s not clear what factors attract or keep high-caliber teachers at certain schools, research suggests working conditions play an essential role. An analysis of SASS data by Education Week found that teachers in high-poverty and high-minority schools report much more difficult working conditions on some fronts than do teachers in other schools.


  • Teachers in high-poverty schools were more likely than those in low-poverty schools to agree that student disrespect is a “moderate” or “serious” problem (56 percent vs. 37 percent); that students are unprepared to learn (80 percent vs. 45 percent); and that lack of parent involvement is a moderate or serious problem (75 percent vs. 36 percent). Larger percentages of teachers in such schools also stated that student and teacher absenteeism and student apathy were moderate or serious problems in their schools.
  • Teachers in high-poverty or high-minority schools were less likely to agree that they were satisfied with their salaries, received a great deal of support from parents, or had the necessary materials to teach. They also were less likely to agree that there was a “great deal of cooperative effort among the staff members.”

Now, states and districts are under new pressure to guarantee a skilled teacher in every classroom. The “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 requires states to ensure that all teachers of the core academic subjects are “highly qualified” in every subject they teach by the end of the 2005-06 school year. Newly hired teachers in schools receiving Title I money must have satisfied those requirements this school year. Education Week’s survey of the 50 states and the District of Columbia found that much remains to be done if states are to meet the challenge in the new federal law.


  • Twenty-two states require that school or district report cards include information about teacher characteristics, such as the percent with emergency credentials. Just four publicly report teacher qualifications disaggregated by school type.
  • Only California, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Tennessee provide parents with information about the credentials of every public school teacher on a Web site.
  • Kentucky alone bars out-of-field teaching, or the practice of assigning teachers to classes for which they are not certified. Ten additional states either limit the number of out-of-field teachers in a school or district or impose accreditation penalties on districts that hire too many out-of-field teachers.
  • Twenty-four states provide college scholarships, loans, or other tuition assistance to future teachers, but only seven of them target such programs at candidates committed to teaching in high-poverty, high-minority, or low-achieving schools.
  • Five states provide signing bonuses for teachers, but only California and Massachusetts gear such bonuses toward teachers willing to work in high-need schools or districts.
  • Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia offer retention bonuses to veteran or highly qualified teachers, primarily those who have earned certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. But only five of them target those bonuses at teachers in high-need schools.

For Quality Counts 2003, Education Week also conducted a survey of 30 of the nation’s largest school districts. This survey found that many districts have efforts to recruit and keep skilled teachers, though most do not zero in on placing those teachers in high-need schools.

One way that states and districts have tried to increase the supply of well-qualified teachers is through alternative routes that streamline entry into the profession for midcareer job-switchers or those with bachelor’s degrees. All but six states have alternative routes in place. Quality Counts found that 24 states and the District of Columbia have created or regulate alternative routes that include both a preservice and a mentoring component. New federal rules require that teachers enrolled in alternative routes receive high-quality professional development before and while teaching and a program of intensive supervision or mentoring for the teachers to be considered “highly qualified.”

This year’s edition of Quality Counts also charts progress in other facets of states’ education systems. In addition to presenting the latest data on student achievement, it grades states in four areas: standards and accountability, efforts to improve teacher quality, school climate, and resources. This year, states averaged a C across those categories.

Quality Counts 2003 is divided into three sections. “The Teacher Gap” examines the special theme of this year’s report. “Ensuring Qualified Teachers” tracks state and district policies and indicators related to the theme. “State of the States” includes more than 100 indicators of the health of each state’s public education system. State updates summarize state policy changes in education during the past year.

A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2003 edition of Education Week


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