Special Report

The Great Divide

By Lynn Olson — January 09, 2003 19 min read
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Across the nation, states are raising their expectations for what students should know and be able to do. Increasingly, students must meet those expectations to graduate from high school or move on to the next grade.

But states have not been as rigorous in ensuring that students have teachers who know their subjects and can teach. To the contrary, the deck is often stacked against those children who need help the most.

<i>"The Spanish teacher, Mr. Miller, I don't feel was qualified to teach Spanish at all because he didn't seem to know too much Spanish hisself. He was also absent from class. And when I say absent, I mean I would see him there, but he wouldn't come to my actual period... We had a numerous amount of substitutes in that classroom for a while. And during those times we had those substitutes we watched movies in class. We played games in class. We basically had a free period where we did whatever we wanted to. We had different substitutes almost every day. And then we had a final at the end of that. And I don't understand how they could have gave us a final in Spanish when we did not learn a lick of Spanish. I think they really should have tested me on the movies I was sitting there watching."</i>

Quality Counts 2003 focuses on this “teacher gap"--the fact that students in high-poverty, high-minority, and low-achieving schools have the least access to skilled instructors. Consider:

  • In California, 23 percent of teachers in the state’s lowest-achieving schools lacked full credentials to teach in the 2000-01 school year, compared with only about 6 percent of teachers in the highest-achieving schools.
  • In Missouri, the lowest-performing students have teachers with the lowest scores on the ACT college-admissions test. High-poverty, high-minority districts also employ a disproportionate share of new teachers and those with low ACT scores.
  • In New York state, an analysis of data from 1984-85 through 1999-2000 found that fewer than half the teachers in some high-poverty, high-minority schools were fully certified in all the courses they taught. Low-income, low-achieving, and nonwhite students also were more likely to have teachers who lacked prior teaching experience, had failed a teacher-licensing exam on the first try, or had attended less selective colleges as undergraduates.

Nationally, according to an analysis conducted for Quality Counts, nearly one-third of students in high-poverty secondary schools, and one in four students in high-minority secondary schools, take at least one class with a teacher who hasn’t even minored in the subject. That compares with fewer than one-fifth of students in low-poverty or low-minority schools.

“If you want to understand the root of the achievement gap,” says David Haselkorn, the dean of national education programs and policies at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., “it’s the teacher gap that exists between the affluent schools and the less affluent schools. It’s scandalous.”

The educators committed and willing to work in high-poverty, high-minority, and low-achieving schools clearly are not to blame for such inequities. Indeed, many skilled teachers are working in those schools. Rather, political inaction and fragmented and incoherent policies, combined with difficult working conditions, contribute to the maldistribution of well-qualified teachers.

A class action has been filed against California, in fact, alleging that the state has failed to ensure all students basic education necessities, including trained teachers. Quotes from Alondra Jones and other students in this article were taken from depositions in Williams et al. v. the State of California and from research by Michelle Fine, a professor of psychology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, that has been offered as expert testimony for plaintiffs in the case.

Now, states and districts are under new pressure to guarantee a skilled teacher in every classroom. The federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 requires states to ensure that all teachers of the core academic subjects--English, reading or language arts, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, history, geography, and the arts--are “highly qualified” in every subject they teach by the end of the 2005-06 school year. Newly hired teachers in schools receiving federal Title I money must have met the law’s requirements this school year.

The law, a revision of the landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act first passed in 1965, defines “highly qualified” educators as those who are fully licensed through alternative or traditional routes and who have demonstrated competency in the subjects they teach, either by having an academic major or its equivalent or by passing a subject-matter test. The law also requires that state and district report cards provide information about teacher qualifications, including the percentage of classes not taught by highly qualified teachers at high- vs. low-poverty schools. Schools receiving Title I aid--those that generally enroll youngsters from low-income families--must notify parents when their children are taught by a teacher who does not meet the criteria for being highly qualified.

Congress passed the requirements based on evidence that effective teachers matter.

Economists Steven G. Rivkin and Eric A. Hanushek found that the best teachers, compared with their least effective colleagues, can get an additional year’s worth of learning out of their students. The importance of having an effective teacher is so pronounced, they suggest, based on research in Texas, that having a very good teacher instead of an average teacher for four or five years in a row could essentially close the gap in math performance between students from low-income and high-income households. “The magnitude of the teacher effect is striking,” says Hanushek.

Similarly, research in Tennessee by William L. Sanders has concluded that the difference in achievement between students who attended classes taught by high-quality and low-quality teachers for three consecutive years is huge: approximately 50 percentile points on standardized tests. And African-American students, Sanders found, were overrepresented in the least effective teachers’ classrooms.

<i>"The teachers that I have, they're not dedicated to helping out the students, especially most of the math teachers. You know, I sit there. I have problems with math. I usually get B's and C's, only a few A's... I ask questions to my geometry teacher, and he's like, 'read the book.' I’ve read the book about 15 times. He's like, 'read the book.' And I’ve read it. And he just can't explain it to me, and I’m not learning."</i>

Although research confirms that teachers matter, it’s less conclusive about which teacher characteristics are related to higher student achievement.

The problem is that many of the characteristics of a good teacher cannot be easily measured. And studies about the importance of those traits that can be quantified--such as subject-matter knowledge or licensure--are often complex, inconclusive, or even contradictory.

Studies have found, for example, that students whose teachers have better cognitive ability or verbal skills--as measured by basic-skills tests, SAT or ACT scores, and the selectivity of the colleges they attended--generally achieve more.

Teachers’ knowledge of their subjects also appears to influence student performance. A number of studies, for instance, indicate that high school math and science teachers with coursework in their fields have students who achieve more than students whose teachers have less formal training in their subjects. But the findings are not as clear for other subjects, such as English.

Inexperienced teachers--particularly those with less than three years on the job--also produce smaller learning gains than their more experienced colleagues. The negative effects of having teachers who are still learning to teach is particularly pronounced for students from poor families, according to research by Hanushek and others.

Less agreement exists about whether credentialed teachers are more effective than those without full licenses to teach, or about what kind of pedagogical preparation matters. While some studies suggest that uncredentialled teachers are less effective in the classroom, others have failed to find a link between teacher certification and student achievement. Each research camp criticizes the other for poor methodology.

Such conflicting findings have led to sharply divergent policy prescriptions. On one side are those who want to regulate entry into teaching more tightly and ensure that all teachers possess subject-matter and pedagogical knowledge as well as student-teaching experience. On the other are those who want to loosen the requirements to let more nontraditional candidates into the profession. At the same time, those advocates would give principals more power to hire and fire on the basis of teachers’ potential or actual ability to raise student achievement.

<i>"Our math teacher we had last year, he was like, he couldn't deal with the class. So I’m thinking, why would, I mean, how did you even become a teacher if you weren't practicing being in the class with kids or something? Because as soon as the first day we came in, he just couldn't handle it. He didn't know how to tell people to be quiet... Every five minutes he was calling the office, I’m sending the kid down, want a referral. And the office called, they was just getting tired of it. They was like, you can't send nobody else out of that classroom. You just can't. And then the next thing you know, he didn't come back. And then that's when we had a substitute. And then we had a substitute for like a whole semester. And then, it's like at the end of the semester, we was all worried about… how we going to get our grades? Like, that's going to mess our GPA. And do you know, everybody in that class... got an incomplete on their report card. So it was like, we didn't get no credits or nothing."</i>

Teacher characteristics may explain only a fraction of what makes a teacher effective. But the grim truth is that no matter which characteristic you choose, students in high-poverty, high-minority, and low-achieving schools come up on the short end of the stick.

As R. Hamilton Lankford, an economist at the State University of New York at Albany, notes, based on his analysis of New York data: “Schools that have low-quality teachers as measured by one attribute are more likely to have low-quality teachers based on all other measures.”

For Quality Counts 2003, Richard M. Ingersoll, an associate professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, analyzed public school students’ access to highly qualified teachers, based on the 1999- 2000 Schools and Staffing Survey, or SASS. That federal database includes a statistically representative sample of teachers across the United States.

For purposes of the analysis, high-poverty schools are defined as those in which at least half the students qualify for subsidized school meals. High-minority schools are those in which at least half the students are nonwhite. Low-poverty and low-minority schools have 15 percent or fewer students who fit such categories. Among the SASS findings:

  • Sixteen percent of high school students nationwide, and 44 percent of middle school students, take at least one class with a teacher who did not even minor in the subject being taught. In high-poverty schools, nearly a fifth of high school students and more than half of middle school students take at least one course with a teacher who did not even attain 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 teachers who are not licensed in the subjects they teach.
  • Students in high-poverty and high-minority schools 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. In high-minority elementary schools, nearly 15 percent of teachers are novices.
  • Students in high-poverty and high-minority schools also are more likely to be taught by newcomers with no practice-teaching experience. In schools where a majority of students are members of minority groups, nearly 17 percent of novice teachers never student-taught, compared with fewer than 6 percent in low-minority schools. In high- vs. low-poverty schools, those figures are 15 percent and 7 percent, respectively.
<i>Focus-qroup leader: "What do you do when you get a teacher that you kind of trust, that you're learning from, that you got something going with, and then they switch it?" <br> <br> Girl: "It's hard for you to get back." <br> <br> Girl: "And it messes up your GPA" <br> <br> Q: "Tell me how it makes you feel, how you think, what do you do then? Just go through it." <br> <br> Girl: "You start to hate that subject." <br> <br> Boy: "Yes, exactly." <br> <br> Q: "You start to what?" <br> <br> Girl: "Hate that subject." <br> <br> Boy: "You start all over." <br> <br> Q:"Why?" <br> <br> Girl: "Because it's not the same. All teachers teach differently."</i>

Schools serving high-poverty, high-minority, and low-achieving students have a harder time not only finding qualified teachers, but also keeping them. In high-poverty middle schools in Philadelphia, for example, 46 percent of teachers in 1999-2000 had come to their schools within the previous two years.

“It is almost impossible for school staffs to address serious problems together when faculty turnover is so high,” says Elizabeth L. Useem, the director of research and evaluation for the Philadelphia Education Fund, a nonprofit group that promotes school improvement.

More than half of the teacher turnover that schools and districts experience, according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Ingersoll, stems not from retirement but from the voluntary and involuntary movement of teachers from school to school and district to district. Schools in high-poverty communities experience a disproportionate share of disruptions stemming from the steady loss of teachers.

In Texas, Hanushek and his colleagues found that more than 25 percent of teachers in schools in the bottom quartile of achievement left their schools each year, compared with fewer than 20 percent of teachers at schools in the top quartile. Low-achieving students, the researchers conclude, are much more likely to have teachers who are new both to their schools and to the profession.

Research shows that as teachers switch jobs, they systematically move to sites with fewer poor, minority, and low-achieving students.

Although it appears that teachers may be fleeing students with certain characteristics, some studies suggest it’s the poor working conditions often associated with high-poverty, high-minority schools that are the primary culprit.

In a study of 50 newly minted teachers in Massachusetts, researchers at Harvard University’s graduate school of education found that all the teachers who switched schools voluntarily transferred to sites serving wealthier populations than their original schools did. But the teachers said they were not seeking more affluent students; they were seeking schools where they could be successful.

The respondents reported that they felt their chances for success depended largely on a set of school-site factors, including their teaching assignments and workloads, student behavior, the supportiveness of principals and colleagues, the availability of effective curricula and other resources, and the schools’ relationship with parents.

Similarly, a study by Linda Darling-Hammond and Susanna Loeb of Stanford University found that salaries and working conditions, not student characteristics, predicted high turnover in California schools.

“Because bad working conditions and relatively noncompetitive salaries are coincident with low-income and minority student populations, we often have been confused about what the major drivers are,” says Darling-Hammond, a professor of education.

If you want to understand the root of the achievement gap, it's the teacher gap that exists between the affluent and the less affluent schools."

“That’s not to say that neighborhoods don’t make a difference in people’s desires about where to teach, or that there aren’t some teachers who are fearful or antagonistic about working in high-minority neighborhoods,” she adds. “But they don’t appear to be the dominant driver, when you control for working conditions and salaries.”

Based on an analysis of SASS data by Education Week, teachers in high-poverty and high-minority schools report much more difficult working conditions across a variety of measures than do teachers in other schools. (See story, Page 17.)

At Los Angeles Senior High School, a sprawling building of more than 4,000 students, fourth-year teacher Rebecca Solomon says, “Everything pushes [new teachers] out.”

The Title I school, which operates on a multitrack schedule, has some 180 teachers, 110 of whom are in the building at anyone time. Classes have as many as 42 students. Lunch is 30 minutes, grabbed on the fly. Solomon, who teaches social studies, has no permanent room of her own, and nowhere to be during the periods when she is not teaching.

“And people leave [the school] right away,” she sighs, her voice becoming quieter. “You’re struggling to make adult, human contact. You’re struggling to make contact with your students, because in a room with 42 students, my ability to know my students is minimal... It’s a very deadening environment that seeks to suck up your humanity.”

What keeps her there, she says, are the students and a small network of supportive colleagues.

Given such challenges, Hanushek and his colleagues estimate that high-poverty, high-minority schools may have to pay an additional 20 percent, 30 percent, or even 50 percent in salaries to attract the best candidates. Across-the-board raises and single-salary schedules that pay all teachers the same, regardless of their teaching assignments or effectiveness, will fail to compensate for the labor-market disadvantages facing such schools, the researchers argue.

Other studies suggest that mentoring or induction programs can increase teacher-retention rates and help rookies become more effective. But such programs often fail to deliver. A survey of new teachers in New Jersey found that 74 percent had mentors, yet only 17 percent had been observed teaching by their mentors. Particularly in schools with high concentrations of beginners, finding enough veterans to provide adequate support and supervision may be difficult.

<i>"Well, what I think they should do is hire teachers that are going to expect the best from us. Because what they're doing right now is limiting us."</i>

Today, states are taking steps to find and keep high-caliber teachers, as are many of the nation’s largest districts.

New York state, for example, has prohibited the hiring of uncertified teachers in its lowest-performing schools. And the state board of regents is phasing in a requirement that by September of this year, no teacher can be unlicensed. The state also has adopted a range of incentives to increase the supply of well-qualified teachers, including annual bonuses of $10,000 for up to three years for teachers certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards who work in low-performing schools.

Similarly, California has established a number of incentives to entice first-rate teachers to low-performing schools, including: a college loan-forgiveness program; housing incentives; waivers of state testing and licensing fees for candidates willing to teach in hard-to-staff low-performing schools; and bonuses for board-certified teachers who agree to work in such schools. The state also provides grants to districts that they can use for signing bonuses, improved working conditions, and other steps to enhance teacher quality.

But most state efforts to recruit and retain teachers are not targeted at high-poverty, high-minority, or low-achieving schools, where well-qualified teachers are needed most. Rather, state incentives are geared toward increasing the supply of teachers overall or in specific subjects, like mathematics or science. When states do target their programs, they rarely keep track of whether those incentives are working, or whether program participants actually end up teaching at high-need schools.

Faced with a sluggish economy, some states have been pulling back on their existing initiatives or failing to finance them. Mississippi, for example, scaled back a scholarship program designed to draw teachers to areas where they are needed most.

States, in general, are far from ensuring a highly qualified teacher in every classroom by the end of the 2005-06 school year, as required by the 2001 federal law. For instance:

  • Twenty-two states require that school or district report cards include information about teacher characteristics, such as the percent of fully licensed teachers or those with emergency credentials. But only four publicly report teacher qualifications in high- vs. low-poverty schools.
  • Kentucky is the only state that bars out-of-field teaching, or the practice of assigning teachers to classes they are not licensed to teach.
  • Twenty-four states provide college scholarships, loans, or other tuition assistance to prospective teachers, but only seven of them target such programs at candidates committed to working in high-poverty, high-minority, or low-achieving schools.
  • Six states offer housing aid to teachers, but only three of them gear the incentives toward teachers willing to work in the neediest schools.
  • Sixteen states require and finance induction programs to support all beginning teachers in the classroom, but only five of them require more than one year of mentoring for novices.
  • Five states provide signing bonuses for teachers, but only California and Massachusetts gear such bonuses to 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 national board certification. But only five of them target those bonuses to teachers in high-need schools.

For Quality Counts 2003, Education Week also surveyed 30 of the nation’s largest school districts. The survey found that many of those districts are pursuing efforts to hire and keep highly qualified teachers, but that most such policies are not focused on placing those teachers in schools where they are most needed. (See chart, Page 56.)

One way that states have tried to increase the supply of skilled teachers is through the creation of so-called alternative routes that streamline entry into the profession for midcareer job-switchers and those who already hold bachelor’s degrees. Data suggest that such programs have been effective at recruiting more minority and male candidates into teaching, and that many of those new teachers are willing to work in high-need schools.

But many alternative-route programs are designed to increase the pool of teachers in general, not to recruit candidates for specific types of schools. And few states or districts keep statistics on where such recruits end up. Moreover, the fact that alternative-route candidates may be more likely to teach the nation’s neediest children is a double-edged sword. While some studies have found such candidates are just as effective as traditional teacher education graduates, others suggest that is not the case.

One problem is that the quality of alternative routes varies widely. Although some alternative routes graduate effective new teachers who stay in teaching, other programs permit individuals to enter the classroom with minimal prior training or experience working with children. Many alternative-route candidates also must take evening and weekend classes while carrying full teaching loads.

And having such teachers disproportionately wind up in high-need schools perpetuates a pattern in which poor and minority students are taught by a higher-than-average share of new and inexperienced educators.

“These programs are very different,” Johnson of Harvard observes. “Some of them are really preparing people to learn on the job, and some of them are excuses for stamping people as ‘certified’ and therefore meeting federal requirements.”

Indeed, critics question whether alternative-route candidates who are new to the profession and still working to earn full credentials should be considered “highly qualified” under the federal law.

“By any normal definition, a highly qualified professional is someone with not only training but experience,” says Ken D. Futernick, a professor of education at California State University-Sacramento.

Quality Counts found that 24 states and the District of Columbia have state-created or -regulated alternative routes that include both preservice and mentoring components. 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.”

<i>"[T]he whole period was instruction time. There was never a time where we would begin late or end early. And the whole time--he would give us work like every day. Every day we had work... Sometimes I would talk to him if I didn't understand one of the assignments and he would explain it to me. And then he'll also tell me I can come after school.”</i>

The circumstances that have contributed to the inequitable distribution of the nation’s teaching force didn’t happen overnight. Nor will they be corrected overnight. If states have learned anything from their efforts so far, it’s that providing highly capable teachers for the students who need them most is not amenable to easy, one-shot solutions.

“It’s a real struggle,” says California state Sen. Dede Alpert, a Democrat. “But I think everybody now is pretty much focused on this.”

The stakes could not be higher. As one California high school student replied when asked about her teachers: “If I can’t learn from you, who am I supposed to learn from?”

In March 2024, Education Week announced the end of the Quality Counts report after 25 years of serving as a comprehensive K-12 education scorecard. In response to new challenges and a shifting landscape, we are refocusing our efforts on research and analysis to better serve the K-12 community. For more information, please go here for the full context or learn more about the EdWeek Research Center.

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


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