A newly published study of Philadelphia high schools suggests that in 9th grade—the make-or-break year for many students on the path to dropping out of school—students are more likely than their upper-grade peers to be taught by inexperienced, uncertified teachers.
While it’s hard to say what impact such teacher-assignment patterns have on students’ academic growth, the researchers found that, in Philadelphia at least, having a less-qualified teacher may have a detrimental effect on students’ attendance. All things being equal, the study showed, students taking at least two classes taught by novice, uncredentialed teachers miss an average of two more school days a year than peers with more-qualified teachers.
“The differences are not big,” said Ruth Curran Neild, the lead author of the study, which was published this month in the American Journal of Education. “But what is concerning is that 9th grade is such a vulnerable year. When you have people teaching 9th grade who are so inexperienced and who know so little about teaching 9th grade, it’s potentially a problem.”
Numerous studies in recent years have found that high-quality teachers are unevenly distributed among schools and students. That research has shown, for example, that poorly qualified teachers are more likely to be concentrated in schools serving disadvantaged children and minority students and that, within schools, veteran teachers vie to teach higher-track academic classes. Few studies, however, have examined teacher-distribution patterns across grades within schools. (“Certified Urban Educators Seen Less Likely to Be Put In 9th Grade Classrooms,” April 30, 2005.)
Ms. Neild, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said she and her co-author, Elizabeth Farley-Ripple, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, decided to examine staffing patterns in the 200,000-student Philadelphia school district after working in high schools there and noticing that the 9th graders seemed to have more than their share of novice teachers and teachers without credentials.
“Anecdotally, you hear that this happens in middle schools and high schools. Teachers work their way up to better students, better classes, and better schedules,” said Ms. Neild. “It’s almost like the youngest students have the lowest status.”
The researchers found that over the 1999-2000 school year, 29 percent of all 9th graders’ courses were taught by new or uncredentialed teachers. The corresponding figure for 10th grade was 28 percent. In 11th and 12th grades, 24 percent and 21 percent, respectively, of students’ courses were staffed by teachers with those characteristics.
The researchers also analyzed the data to see whether shortages of high-quality teachers in some high-demand subjects, such as science or mathematics, could be driving the patterns they saw. They found, however, that grade-to-grade disparities for those subjects were no worse than they were for English and social studies.
Inequitable distributions of high-quality teachers among foreign-language classes, on the other hand, were more pronounced. More than 43 percent of the foreign-language classes taken by freshmen across the district were taught by teachers who were either new, uncertified, or both, compared with 29 percent of seniors’ foreign-language courses.
The authors said the findings are troubling because recent studies have highlighted the dramatic impact that a good—or bad—teacher can have on a student’s learning trajectory. Unable to find student-achievement data to gauge that effect on Philadelphia students, the researchers focused instead on attendance data, with the idea that lower-than-average attendance rates could signal that students might be starting to disengage from school by skipping class or cutting school. In making those calculations, the researchers also tried to control for a wide range of factors, such as prior academic achievement, that might also explain differences in student-attendance rates.
Whether the same sorts of teacher-assignment patterns are common for high schools nationwide, however, is an open question, Ms. Neild said. Amid nationwide concerns that too many students are stumbling on the cusp of their high school years, some schools in Philadelphia, in fact, have tried to reverse those traditional staffing patterns. One is Thomas Edison High School, where school officials actively recruited some of the school’s best teachers for a special Ninth Grade Academy aimed at giving students special attention at a critical schooling juncture.
But a spokesman for the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that studies educational inequities across the country, said his organization sees the same staffing trends in many high schools.
“These freshman courses, where students are most likely to fall behind, are oftentimes the ones with the highest enrollments and the ones that are ascribed the least status,” said Ross Wiener, the group’s vice president for programs and policy.
A report published earlier this year by the group highlights teaching disparities in Texas between schools with high concentrations of poor students and better-off schools, and between schools with high- and low-minority enrollments. Mr. Wiener said that study suggests that such inequities are particularly acute among 9th graders.
The report finds, for instance, that in high schools where three-quarters or more of students are considered poor, one in four teachers of English I classes is not certified. That’s twice the rate for the state’s low-poverty schools, where 13 percent of English I teachers lack certification.
“All these factors reinforce and compound one another,” said Mr. Wiener. “It’s a prime example of the way in which public education is organized around adult preferences rather than student needs.”