Recruitment & Retention

‘Teacher Gap’ Shrinking in N.Y.C.

By Vaishali Honawar — June 16, 2008 3 min read

Data have long indicated that teachers with the least experience and worst academic records are most often found in the poorest schools. But a new report points to a promising trend in New York City, where teachers in the highest-poverty schools became more qualified over a five-year period.

What’s more, that improvement in teacher qualifications, observed from 2000 to 2005, could have caused a simultaneously observed increase in student test scores, say authors of the report, published last month in the National Bureau of Economic Research’s working-paper series.

Researchers credit the improvements to the district’s policy change wherein it no longer hires uncertified new teachers, along with the influx of teachers with strong academic backgrounds from two alternative-route teacher-preparation programs, Teaching Fellows and Teach For America, which recruit for high-poverty schools.

About a quarter of the city’s hires for this coming academic year will be from the Teaching Fellows program, which targets midcareer professionals to enter teaching, and about 10 percent will arrive via Teach For America, which recruits fresh liberal arts graduates.

“What distinguishes both of those programs is they are highly selective. Both try to build the largest possible applicant pool,” said Vicki Bernstein, the executive director of teacher recruitment and quality for New York City schools. Only one out of 10 applicants to those programs actually starts teaching in the city’s schools, she added.

Also, both the report’s authors and Ms. Bernstein pointed out, salaries for teachers in the 1.1 million-student district went up significantly since 2000, which could have resulted in an improved candidate pool. The starting salary for a teacher with no experience and a bachelor’s degree, for instance, increased from $33,186 in 2000 to $39,000 in 2005. The figures were not adjusted for inflation.

A Growing Trend?

The authors looked at such qualifications as certification, experience, and SAT scores of teachers in New York City schools and found a significant reduction in the gap between teacher qualifications in high-poverty and low-poverty schools over the five-year period.

They found that in 2000, teachers in the highest-poverty quartile of schools had math SAT scores averaging just below 450, compared with 482 for teachers in the lowest-poverty quartile. By 2005, math SAT scores for the teachers in the poorest quartile of schools had risen to 472, while those of teachers in the most well-to-do schools rose to 488, shrinking the gap between the two groups from 32 points to only 16.

For background, previous stories, and Web links, read Teacher Quality.

It is possible that this phenomenon is playing out in other urban districts, the report adds. “While the findings could be specific to New York City, they may mirror changes in other large urban districts, many of which have seen similar policy changes over the past decade,” it says.

For example, Timothy Daly, the president of the New Teacher Project, which runs the Teaching Fellows program in New York City, said that in addition to New York, districts such as Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia have also taken a sustained approach to increasing the supply of strong teacher-candidates. “They have all established and grown significant programs that recruit teachers specifically for hard-to-staff areas,” he said.

Concurrent with the increase in teacher qualifications, the report’s authors found the gap between student achievement in high- and low-poverty schools also narrowed. They stop short, however, of drawing a definite link between shrinkage of the gap in teacher qualifications and student test scores, saying the causal relationship between the two trends is not clear.

“We believe that there is good evidence that the change in qualifications did lead to improved student achievement,” said one of the authors, James Wyckoff, a professor of education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Another factor could have occurred at the same time, he said, such as higher motivation levels of teachers who came in during the period analyzed.

Ms. Bernstein, New York City’s head of recruitment, said that “the teacher-quality equation is not as simple as looking at someone’s test scores.”

But, she added, she believes that some of those observable characteristics of a teacher, such as those considered in the report, have some impact. “That’s not to mean that everyone who has great scores makes a great teacher,” Ms. Bernstein said.

“There is no magic formula here, but we want to get as many qualified teachers in our classrooms” by continuing to be highly selective in hiring, she added.

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