Though experts agree that 9th grade is a critical transition year in schooling, a study unveiled here last week suggests that freshman students in urban high schools may be less likely than their older peers to get certified, experienced teachers to guide them through that rocky period.
Presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, the study is based on data from 35 high schools in an urban district that the researchers do not name. But the authors of the report say they believe their findings may hold true for big-city districts throughout the United States—and, to a lesser extent, for suburban schools, too.
Several studies in recent years have shown that inner-city schools serving predominantly poor students tend to get more than their fair share of neophyte teachers and to have more teachers assigned to subjects for which they were never certified. Fewer studies have taken a look at how those less qualified teachers may be distributed within those struggling urban schools.
“It would seem logical for schools to place their strongest and most experienced teachers in the 9th grade,” said Ruth Curran Neild, the lead author of the report. In the 200,000-student district she and her co-author studied, though, students in 9th grade had the lowest odds of students in any high school grade of being taught by a certified teacher.
Focusing on the 1999-2000 school year, the study found that the overall percentages of new or uncertified teachers ranged from 8 percent to 60 percent in the 35 high schools the researchers tracked. Magnet and vocational schools had the fewest uncertified teachers. And, in keeping with other studies, the researchers found that black, Hispanic, and low-achieving students tended to get disproportionately high shares of new and uncertified teachers.
Reasons for Placements
In 25 of the high schools, freshmen were more likely than seniors to have new or uncertified teachers instructing them. In 10 of those 25 schools, the proportion of novice teachers or those lacking certification was twice as high for 9th graders as it was for 12th graders.
Ms. Neild, an associate professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education, said that in one of the schools that participated in the study, she saw 9th grade Algebra 1 classes being taught by uncertified teachers who had studied political science, not math, in college.
Yet, she added, principals often have valid reasons for assigning teachers who may be arguably the least qualified to their most needy students. Upper-grades classrooms, with more stable student populations, are often considered plum assignments, and principals may use those teaching posts to reward senior teachers because they have no other incentives to offer.
Also, she said, districts often send newly minted teachers to schools a day or two before school starts, which leaves principals little time to become familiar with their qualifications.
“If I were a principal, I would put them in Algebra 1, rather than calculus,” Ms. Neild said.
While it’s hard to say exactly what kind of impact new or uncertified teachers have on 9th graders’ academic achievement, the study did point to one possible indicator of a negative effect.
All other things being equal, it found, students taught by those less “qualified” urban teachers tended to miss more days of school—about three-quarters of a day more for every 10-percentage-point increase in the percentage of uncertified or new teachers who taught them.