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Teacher Quality Found Improving in Chicago Schools

By Vaishali Honawar — June 25, 2008 3 min read
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Teacher quality in disadvantaged Chicago schools has improved over this decade, largely because the district has focused on hiring inexperienced teachers with stronger academic backgrounds, a report released today finds.

The authors of the study from the Illinois Education Research council say their findings challenge some conventional wisdom on how best to bolster teacher quality. For instance, they conclude that inexperienced teachers are not inherently bad for schools.

“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,” the report says.

The report looks at changes in the academic backgrounds of teachers around the state, and their experience levels, from 2001 to 2006. 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 report’s authors and the founding director of the research council, based at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville.

Ms. Presley and her co-authors add, however, that despite the improvements, Chicago still has a long way to go: Schools serving minority and low-income students in the city rated lower in teacher quality than their counterparts in the rest of the state.

Differing Strategies

A study published last month of the nation’s largest district, New York City, found an improvement in teacher quality at high-poverty schools there, and a reduction in the teacher-qualification gap between high- and low-poverty schools. Although the authors of the New York City study saw a significant role played by the alternative teacher-preparation routes Teaching Fellows and Teach For America because they hire teachers with stronger academic credentials, the Illinois researchers did not see such a link.

“TFA did not begin recruiting new teachers to Chicago until 2000, and TFA teachers currently constitute only 4 to 5 percent of the district’s inexperienced teachers each year,” the Illinois report says. The New Teacher Project, which runs the Teaching Fellows program, only began operating in Chicago in 2007—after the period covered by the study.

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

Instead of looking at individual teacher characteristics, as the New York study did, the Illinois researchers examined a school-level measure of teacher quality based on five teacher attributes: the mean ACT composite scores of teachers at the school, the mean ACT English score, the percentage of teachers at the school who failed the basic-skills entrance test at the first attempt, the percentage of teachers who were provisionally or emergency certified, and the competitiveness ranking of the teacher-preparation programs attended by the 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.”

The improvement in Chicago’s teacher quality occurred simultaneously with a surge in applications for teaching jobs in the district, from about 2.5 candidates for each opening in 2002 to 10 candidates 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.

The report calls on districts to provide strong supports to keep new, academically talented teachers in the classroom. Researchers say they found, for example, that teachers with the highest ACT scores and degrees from the most competitive institutions are less likely to remain teaching in the lowest-performing schools. To stem this loss, the authors recommend effective mentoring and induction support for new teachers and improving the school climate.

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