School & District Management

Urban Districts Found to Be Narrowing the Teacher Gap

By Vaishali Honawar — July 14, 2008 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 8 min read
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Corrected: A previous version incorrectly identified the program that will provide as many as 20 percent of the Boston district’s teachers this year. It is the Boston Teacher Residency Program.

Teachers at disadvantaged schools in two of the nation’s largest urban districts are getting more qualified, which is helping to improve student test scores.

Studies of New York City and Chicago were conducted by separate researchers using different methodologies, and each gave different reasons for the results. The bottom line, however, was the same: The gap in teacher qualifications at high- and low-poverty schools in both districts has narrowed since the beginning of this decade.

The Illinois study also suggests that teachers without experience are not inherently bad for schools.

The studies show “that efforts [made for improving teacher quality] may be paying off in some of the larger districts,” said John Luczak, an education program manager with the Joyce Foundation in Chicago, which financed the Illinois study. (The Joyce Foundation also underwrites coverage in Education Week of efforts to improve the teaching profession.)

Both studies show a shift in the long-observed trend that the most-qualified teachers appear to teach at the more affluent schools, while the poorest schools are usually staffed by teachers who are new or less qualified. Federal data on teachers deemed “highly qualified,” including the latest report released last month, have shown a continuing gap in teacher qualifications at high- and low-poverty schools.

While the studies are specific to New York and Illinois, their authors hold out hope that progress could be occurring elsewhere as well. “[The findings] may mirror changes in other large urban districts, many of which have seen similar policy changes over the past decade,” write the authors of the New York study.

Crediting Alternative Hires

Timothy Daly, the president of the New Teacher Project, which runs the Teaching Fellows program in New York City, said that 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.

The authors of the New York study give a good part of the credit in New York City to the district’s partnership with the New Teacher Project, which recruits midcareer professionals from other fields for teaching jobs in high-poverty schools, and, to a smaller extent, to Teach For America, which focuses on hiring new liberal arts graduates for a two-year commitment to teaching in poorer schools.

About a quarter of the city’s hires for the coming academic year will be from the Teaching Fellows program, and about 10 percent will arrive via TFA.

“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 the 1.1 million-student New York City schools. Only one out of 10 applicants to those programs actually starts teaching in the city’s schools, she added.

Concurrent with the increase in teacher qualifications, the study’s authors found the gap between student achievement in high- and low-poverty schools in New York also narrowed. “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. However, another factor could have been at work at the same time, he said, such as higher motivation levels of teachers who came in during the period analyzed.

Some observers of the teaching profession urged caution in reading the New York City study, which was released in May. “If you look closely at the data,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University, “what really increased scores was greater experience and more teachers who were certified.”

Academic Capital on Rise

Since the beginning of this decade, two of the nation’s big-city districts have been hiring teachers with stronger test scores for their schools.

Chicago Teachers’ ACT Scores


Source: Illinois Education Research Council

New York City Teachers’ Math SAT Scores by Poverty Quartile of School’s Students


Source: National Bureau of Economic Research

The New York researchers also credit the district’s change in policy since 2003 to hire only certified teachers, and its total of 18 percent salary increases in the period covered, 2001 to 2005. Certified teachers include those coming through alternative routes and are working toward their credentials, per federal rules. The starting salary for a teacher with no experience and a bachelor’s degree, for instance, rose from $33,186 in 2000 to $39,000 in 2005. The figures were not adjusted for inflation.

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

Meanwhile, the Illinois researchers examined a school-level measure of teacher quality based on five teacher attributes: the mean ACT composite scores of teachers at a school, the mean ACT English score, the percentage of teachers at a school who failed the basic-skills entrance test on the first attempt, the percentage of teachers who had provisional or emergency certification, and the competitiveness ranking of the teacher-preparation programs attended by a school’s teachers. The researchers looked separately at teacher experience, they said, to “better analyze these two distinct components of teacher quality ... and their independent effects on student achievement.”

Better Preparation

The study from the Illinois Education Research Council found that teacher quality in disadvantaged Chicago schools has improved during this decade, largely because the district has focused on hiring teachers who lack classroom experience but have stronger academic backgrounds. The authors say their findings challenge some conventional wisdom on how best to bolster teacher quality. For instance, they conclude that teachers are not bad for schools just because they’re inexperienced.

“Recent inexperienced teachers are bringing with them stronger academic capital—a factor whose positive effect on student performance tends to counter the negative impact of teacher inexperience,” says the June 25 report.

The report looks at changes in the academic backgrounds of teachers around the state, and their experience levels, from 2001 to 2006. The researchers found that while the entire state made progress in hiring teachers with stronger academic backgrounds, some of the largest gains were in Chicago, where the district is hiring inexperienced teachers with higher ACT scores and from somewhat more competitive teacher-preparation programs.

“What we are seeing generally in the state is a leveling-up of the teacher academic capital, with gains being made in Chicago to a greater extent, and to a smaller extent in other districts,” said Jennifer B. Presley, one of the authors and the founding director of the research council, based at Southern Illinois University.

Despite the improvements, Chicago still has a long way to go, says the report. Schools serving minority and low-income students in the city rated lower in teacher quality than their counterparts in the rest of the state.

The authors cite other changes over the six-year period that could have influenced the improvements, including the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which required that all core-subject teachers be highly qualified by June 2007, and the adoption by Illinois lawmakers of an improved version of the state’s basic-skills test for entering teachers. Chicago, specifically, also launched an initiative to attract, develop, and retain teachers.

The report calls on Illinois districts to provide strong supports to keep new, academically talented teachers. Researchers say they found that teachers with the highest ACT scores and degrees from the most competitive institutions were less likely to remain teaching in the lowest-performing schools.

Expansion of Pool

The improvement in Chicago’s teacher quality occurred at the same time as a surge in applications for teaching jobs, from about 2.5 candidates for each opening in 2002 to 10 per opening in 2006.

“My own personal opinion is in the past 10 years, ... there’s an explicit agenda [in Chicago] for improving schools, and young people want to be part of that,” Ms. Presley said about the trend.

However, she added, she and her co-authors did not find a link between the improvement in teacher quality and alternative-certification routes such as Teach For America, which has been recruiting for Chicago since 2000.

Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the 408,600-student system, was quick, though, to credit the influx of teachers from alternative-certification programs for the increasing quality of teachers. He pointed out that the district’s recruitment efforts include a rise in the number coming through programs like TFA.

“We have quadrupled that program,” he said, pointing out that 200 new teachers for the new school year will come through that route. “We are bringing in folks in areas of critical needs like math and science,” he added.

In Boston, the acting director of human resources for the 57,000-student district, William C. Horwath, said the district runs an alternative-certification program called the Boston Teacher Residency Program, and will this year hire as many as 20 percent of its teachers through it. Retention rates since the program started four years ago, he said, have been more than 90 percent.

Mr. Horwath pointed to other changes, such as recruiting teachers earlier in the year and a tracking system that allows hopefuls to apply online, that have affected the quality of new teachers entering the city’s schools. Although no study has been conducted in Boston, he said, data on highly qualified teachers collected by the district show the qualification gap between teachers in high- and low-poverty schools is narrowing. The number of teachers deemed highly qualified rose from 87 percent in 2004 to 97 percent in 2007-08.

The studies from Chicago and New York, Mr. Horwath said, “really quantify the work my colleagues there are doing in teacher recruitment and retention, and seeing the positive impact that it has is very encouraging.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as Urban Districts Found to Be Narrowing the Teacher Gap


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