Special Report

Off Target

By Melissa McCabe — January 09, 2003 8 min read
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Students in high-poverty, high-minority, and low-performing schools are less likely than other pupils to be taught by teachers trained in their subjects, and few states and districts have designed specific policy strategies to close the gap.

The tables that follow include the results of a special analysis of the U.S. Department of Education’s 1999-2000 Schools and Staffing Survey, or SASS, conducted for Education Week by Richard M. Ingersoll, an associate professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. The data include state-by- state breakdowns of students’ access to well-qualified teachers in high- and low-poverty and high- and low-minority schools.

Education Week conducted its own analysis of differences in teacher perceptions of working conditions in those types of schools.

The following pages also include the results of Education Week’s survey of the 50 states and the District of Columbia regarding policies aimed at retaining high-caliber teachers and closing the teacher gap through incentives, mentoring and support programs, and structured alternative routes into the profession.

In addition, Education Week conducted a survey of 30 large school districts to examine local policies for ensuring that all students have competent teachers.

The Teacher Gap

What constitutes a “highly qualified” teacher is at the center of a long-running and unresolved debate-one that is likely to intensify as a result of the federal requirements imposed by the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. But there is general agreement that teachers’ subject-matter knowledge and experience positively influence student achievement.

Education Week’s analysis examined SASS measures that include whether teachers at least minored, if not majored, in the particular core subjects they teach, whether they are certified in the subjects they teach, and whether they are new to the profession. The results show that, by various measures, students in high-poverty and high-minority schools get the short end of the stick.

In low-poverty secondary schools (those where 15 percent or fewer students are eligible for subsidized meals), 18 percent of students are taught by at least one teacher in a core subject area who lacks even a minor in the subject. But in high-poverty secondary schools (where at least half the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches), 32 percent of students are taught by at least one core-subject teacher without at least a minor in the subject.

Seventeen percent of all secondary-level students in the United States are taught by at least one teacher in a core academic subject who lacks certification in the subject, compared with 15 percent in low-minority schools (those where 15 percent or fewer students are nonwhite) and 23 percent in high-minority schools (where half or more of students are nonwhite).

The gap is even worse based on a higher bar: the number of teachers who both majored in and obtained certification in the subjects they teach. While about a third of secondary-level students in low-poverty or low-minority schools are taught by at least one teacher who does not have both a major and certification in his or her subject area, that’s true for 44 percent of secondary-level students in high-minority schools and 49 percent of secondary- level students in high-poverty schools.

The disparities often are more glaring in individual states. In North Carolina, for example, the percent of secondary students in high-minority schools taught by at least one teacher without certification in his or her subject is double the statewide figure. In Florida, 26 percent of teachers in high-poverty secondary schools have less than three years of experience, compared with 11 percent of secondary teachers statewide.

Teacher perceptions of working conditions in high- and low-poverty schools may contribute to those gaps. Education Week’s own analysis of SASS shows that, on some key indicators, teachers in high-need schools rate their working conditions lower than do teachers in other schools. For example, 37 percent of teachers in low-poverty schools report that student disrespect for teachers is a “moderate” or “serious” problem, compared with 56 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools. While 36 percent of teachers in low-poverty schools complain of a lack of parent involvement, more than twice that proportion, 75 percent, consider it a problem in high-poverty schools.

The Policy Gap

Despite evidence that a significant teacher-quality gap exists, most states do not track and inform the public about the distribution of qualified teachers across different types of schools.

Education Week found that only 22 states require school and district report cards to include at least one of the following numbers: fully certified teachers, new teachers, teachers with emergency licenses, and out-of-field teachers. Only 13 of 30 districts surveyed disseminate report cards that include data on teacher qualifications. Only four states--Louisiana, New York, Texas, and Wyoming--and two of 30 districts surveyed--Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C. and Oakland, Calif.--break down such data to determine what types of schools consistently experience shortages of skilled teachers.

One significant problem is the “misassignment” of otherwise qualified teachers to classes outside their subject-area training. Education Week found that 11 states have set policies limiting such out-of-field teaching. Kentucky alone has an outright policy ban on the practice.

While many states and districts have launched efforts to attract and retain skilled teachers, few of those initiatives focus on matching well-qualified teachers with high-need schools. In the tables that follow, “high-need schools” are defined as high-poverty, high-minority, or low-performing schools. The term does not reflect workforce needs related to geographic or subject-area shortages.

Twenty-four states offer education assistance, such as college loans and scholarships, to entice candidates to the profession. But just seven target such assistance toward teachers willing to teach at high-poverty, high-minority, or low-performing sites. Ten of the 30 districts surveyed offer education assistance, most often tuition reimbursements. Only Charlotte-Mecklenburg and New York City target such assistance to teachers in high-need schools.

Several states and districts use bonuses to help attract and keep teachers. Five states offer signing bonuses as a recruitment tool, but only two target teachers willing to serve in high-need schools. Of the 10 districts that offer signing bonuses to new teachers, only three focus on recruiting candidates to high-need sites.

Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia offer retention bonuses to skilled or veteran teachers, primarily those who earn certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. But only five of them focus the bonuses on keeping teachers in high-need schools. California and New York target the retention bonuses to board-certified teachers who agree to work in low-performing schools. Twenty out of 30 districts offer retention bonuses for veteran teachers, but just seven of those efforts are targeted.

Nine of the 30 districts surveyed also use salary-based incentives, such as hikes on the pay scale, to attract teachers. Of those districts, three--Baltimore, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and New York City--provide salary-based incentives specifically to teachers willing to assume the challenges of high-need schools.

Alternative Routes and Support

Concerns about the supply of teachers, combined with skepticism about the effectiveness of traditional teacher education, have led to a proliferation of alternative-route programs. According to the National Center for Education Information, a private research group based in Washington, all but six states have some type of alternative-route program in place. While some of those routes are little more than renewable emergency certificates, others are more comprehensive and structured. Education Week focused only on structured programs that include both a preservice and mentoring component. Our 50-state survey found that 24 states and the District of Columbia have established or regulate alternative routes that provide candidates both with training before they enter the classroom and support from a mentor as they teach.

Teachers' perceptions about working conditions in impoverished schools may contribute to the 'teacher gap.'

Still, the level of support and training candidates receive through alternative routes varies widely. The survey found preservice training in alternative routes ranges from two-week orientations to a full year of training. Only 12 states and the District of Columbia require that a portion of the training includes actual classroom experience.

States also vary in the criteria candidates must meet before enrolling in such programs. While all 24 states, and the District of Columbia, whose programs and policies we reviewed require a bachelor’s degree for candidates to be admitted into the alternate-route program, 18 require candidates to pass an entrance test, and of those, 10 require candidates to pass a subject-knowledge test for admission.

Of the 24 states and the District of Columbia that have structured alternative-route programs, 11 aim to place teachers in subjects with shortages. Only Massachusetts, Missouri, and Texas have designed alternative routes specifically to place teachers in high-need schools. Although 20 of the 30 districts surveyed have devised alternative routes, only six specifically aim to attract teachers to high-need schools.

The survey also examined what states and districts are doing to keep new teachers in the profession.

Education Week found that 16 states require and finance induction programs for all beginning teachers. Of those states, five require at least two school years of mentoring. Five states require that mentors and teachers meet for specific amounts of time, and seven compensate mentors for their efforts.

Though Maryland does not provide mentors for all new teachers, it allots mentors to schools based on the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, the ability to meet state standards, and levels of teacher experience.

Of the 30 districts surveyed, 27 have induction programs that provide mentors for all new teachers.

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

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