Equity & Diversity

Poll of Teachers Finds Two-Tiered System

By Linda Jacobson — May 19, 2004 3 min read
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Teachers who serve large numbers of poor and minority students work in schools with more turnover, more unfilled teacher vacancies, lower levels of parent involvement, and fewer textbooks and other teaching materials than those who work in more affluent schools, according to a three-state survey released last week.

Brown at 50

To mark the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka overturning school segregation, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, commissioned the poll of 3,336 teachers in California, New York state, and Wisconsin.

Conducted by the Peter Harris Research Group in New York City, the Lou Harris poll points to a two-tiered education system, with students and teachers in poor and minority schools learning and working in broken-down, factory-era buildings with roaches and other pests and inoperable restroom facilities.

Read the results of the poll, “Fifty Years After Brown v. Board of Education: A Two-Tiered Education System,” from the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

“It is unacceptable to hold students accountable for meeting high standards that their schools are not equipped to help them reach,” the report concludes.

In California, for example, 4 percent of teachers in low- poverty schools said that their schools had high proportions of uncredentialed teachers, meaning at least 20 percent.

But in high-poverty schools in the state, 48 percent of the teachers surveyed said that was the case. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The authors of the report conclude that the nation is relying too heavily on teacher-recruitment strategies instead of changing “the conditions that make these schools hard to staff in the first place.”

‘Unequal’ Conditions

The commission’s report also highlights a few positive findings.

In more than 90 percent of the schools represented by teachers surveyed in Wisconsin, student discipline was not viewed as a problem. And in New York state, three-fourths of the teachers surveyed said that they were satisfied with their textbooks and other instructional materials.

“But it is important to recognize that these bright spots in the surveys are heavily weighted in favor of the greater numbers of teachers who work in low-risk, more advantaged schools,” the report says.

While the report doesn’t place blame for the inequities on any one group, Kathleen Fulton, one of its authors and the director of the Reinventing Schools for the 21st Century project at the commission, said people should listen to what teachers have to say.

The authors recommend that education leaders and public officials “acknowledge unequal and inadequate school conditions,” and take action to find solutions.

“The question of what to do is easy—the question of how is hard,” said Joseph S. Villani, the deputy executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association. “Certainly, nobody plans for their schools to have vermin. We are committed to working on this. The question is, can the public and the political machine work to make schools adequate?”

Leaders should also set standards for the kinds of resources schools should provide, such as highly qualified personnel, up-to-date technology, and enough books and other materials, the report says.

The authors recommend the adoption of school funding formulas that are based on per-pupil needs instead of averages.

“School financing policies,” they say, “should be based on an analysis of what it will cost to raise the bar and close the gap in specific areas of student achievement—bringing the teaching and learning conditions in all schools up to a high standard.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2004 edition of Education Week as Poll of Teachers Finds Two-Tiered System

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