Texas Study Links Teacher Certification, Student Success

By Robert C. Johnston — May 12, 1999 4 min read

Texas students do better on state exams when their instructors are certified in the subjects they teach, according to a report that also says needy students are more likely to have out-of-field teachers.

“This is important,” said John Cole, the president of the Texas Federation of Teachers. “School districts have been hiring uncertified teachers in huge numbers, not telling anyone, and pretending it doesn’t make a difference.”

The release of the findings is also timely. It comes as Texas lawmakers debate bills to raise teacher pay, end social promotion, expand state tests, and require that parents be told when their children have uncertified teachers.

“The exciting thing is that the circumstances of a child’s [home] life matter less and less,” said Uri Treisman, the director of the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Arlington, which performed the study.

Instead, the data show that teacher quality matters more than family background, he said. “The question now is, ‘Will the state back this up with a real commitment?’ ” he added.

The Results

Using data for most of the state’s 250,000 public school teachers in the 1996-97 school year, the Dana Center determined the percentages of certified instructors teaching in their fields in elementary, middle, and high school.

Roughly one-fifth of the state’s 3.8 million K-12 students were taught by out-of-field instructors in 1996-97, according to the study, which was released last month.

Data also revealed that urban and rural schools had lower percentages of instructors teaching in their licensed areas. For example, 49.2 percent of urban middle school mathematics classes in Texas were led by certified math teachers in 1996-97, compared with 70.2 percent in small towns and 65.3 percent statewide.

Meanwhile, 68.1 percent of urban high school Algebra 1 courses were taught by certified teachers, compared with 83.7 percent in small suburbs and 78.6 percent statewide.

“Clearly, there are fewer certified teachers in courses that matter a lot,” Mr. Treisman said, referring to courses such as mathematics and reading.

Rural schools have the hardest time finding certified computer science teachers, according to the report. Just 21.6 percent of computer science courses in rural Texas high schools were taught by teachers certified in that area, compared with 86 percent in suburban schools and 49.7 percent statewide.

And the needier the school, the more likely it is to use out-of-field teachers. A mere 4 percent of instructors were uncertified in elementary schools with a poverty rate below 25 percent, compared with 11 percent in schools with poverty rates above 75 percent.

Those figures have strong implications for student performance on state tests in grades 3-8 and 10, the report notes. The tests are used to rate schools and their districts. Some legislators, as well as Republican Gov. George W. Bush, also want the test results to determine who moves to the next grade and who is held back--a proposal intended to stem so-called social promotions of students not yet academically ready to advance.

The data showed that 75.3 percent of 3rd graders taught by in-field instructors passed all sec- tions of the 1997 state assessment. The figure dropped to 63.7 percent when fewer than 85 percent of the 3rd grade teachers were certified.

Similar patterns emerged for Hispanic and black students. For example, the passing rate for Hispanic 3rd graders jumped from 58.7 percent to 67.5 percent when their teachers were certified in their class subjects.

“Practically speaking, there’s not a huge difference, but what we think the data says is that [teacher certification] does make a difference,” said Ed Fuller, a data and research specialist with the Dana Center.

“Imagine how well all our students would do if all students had qualified teachers,” said Mr. Cole of the Texas Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

While there are no quick solutions to out-of-field teaching, Texas lawmakers are taking aim at the problem. For starters, the state’s K-12 teachers are likely to get a big raise this year. The Senate approved a bill last month to raise minimum teacher salaries by $4,000 and to give raises to some veteran teachers. House members took up the measure last week and vowed to sweeten the pot with more funding.

Money Matters

Higher salaries could lure at least some of the thousands of teachers who are certified but aren’t teaching, experts say.

“Survey after survey indicates that money is the big factor in why people don’t teach,” said Stephanie A. Korcheck, the director of policy and planning for the state board for educator certification.

Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Dawnna Dukes wants to turn up public pressure on districts that hire uncertified teachers. One of her bills would require written notice to parents whose children were in a course or classroom taught by an uncertified or improperly certified teacher.

The House education committee approved the measure last week.

“Parents have an expectation that individuals who are appropriately certified are teaching their children,” she said. “Parents need to know when that is not the case.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 1999 edition of Education Week as Texas Study Links Teacher Certification, Student Success