A decade after passage of No Child Left Behind, America's low-income students still disproportionately taught by out-of-field, inexperienced teachers

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New study from The Education Trust shows that problems are often most acute in suburbs, small towns

Publication date: 
November 18 2010

WASHINGTON (November 18, 2010) – Nearly a decade after federal law was enacted to ensure that low-income students and students of color had a fair shot at being assigned to strong teachers, students in high-poverty schools are still disproportionately taught by out-of-field and rookie teachers, according to “Not Prepared for Class,” a report released today by The Education Trust. And while equity in teacher assignment patterns remains a major problem in inner-city and rural schools – particularly in mathematics – gaps in access to in-field teachers actually are widest in our nation’s suburbs and small towns. 

Out-of-field teachers possess neither state certification in the subject they teach nor a college major in that field.

An analysis of the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) shows the following patterns:

  • In high-poverty secondary schools, core academic classes (English/language arts, mathematics, science, and history/social studies) are still almost twice as likely to be taught by out-of-field teachers as are those classes in low-poverty schools.
  • In our high-poverty middle and high schools, one out of every five core classes is assigned to an out-of-field teacher.
  • One in four middle and high school mathematics courses in high-poverty schools is taught by an educator with neither a math major nor certification in the subject.

“This puts America’s low-income students at an enormous disadvantage,” said Sarah Almy, director of teacher quality at The Education Trust and co-author of the report. “Students who are taught by educators with subject-area knowledge tend to achieve at higher levels than those who aren’t, especially in mathematics. So when low-income kids – the ones most likely to face outside-of-school challenges – are assigned to math classes taught by English majors, we are dramatically increasing the odds against their success and stacking the deck for failure.”

While students in higher poverty schools everywhere are being shortchanged on access to better qualified teachers, the problem is most acute in our nation’s suburbs and towns. The study spotlights these inequities:

  • The percentage of classes taught by out-of-field teachers in high-poverty suburban schools (25.1 percent) is about 10 percentage points higher than the national average (15.6 percent).
  • One in four core classes (25.1 percent) in high-poverty suburban schools has an out-of-field teacher, compared with one in nine (10.6 percent) in low-poverty suburban schools.

“Regardless of poverty status, one out of every six classes in small-town middle and high schools is taught by an out-of-field teacher,” said Christina Theokas, director of research at The Education Trust and co-author of the report. “And at the high-poverty schools in these communities, the rate of out-of-field teaching jumps to almost one in four classes.”

Congress attempted to remedy this problem in 2001. The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires that all core academic classes be taught by “highly qualified” teachers. The law also obligates districts and states to ensure that poor and minority children are not taught disproportionately by inexperienced, unqualified, or out-of-field teachers.

Based on state reports submitted to the federal government, it appears as though significant progress was made on the teacher-quality front. In fact, 95 percent of secondary-level core academic classrooms in 2007-08 were assigned to “highly qualified” teachers. But the federal SASS data, based on a survey of teachers themselves, show that states still have a long road ahead before they achieve equity.

“The teacher provisions in No Child Left Behind haven’t resulted in the kind of change our kids need,” said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust. “Instead of mounting an all-out effort to get honest about teacher quality and equity, far too many states gamed the system. They ducked the issues and hard work that are most important to students and parents, the kind of work it will take to ensure that every student – especially the most vulnerable – gets strong teachers.

Access to in-field teachers isn’t the only area where states, despite federal statute, have failed to make progress. First-year teachers, who research indicates are less effective than their more experienced colleagues, are still assigned to students attending high-poverty schools at a higher rate than other students. And while the practice is most prevalent in urban schools, this problem isn’t just a big-city issue. In small towns, rookie teachers are assigned to high-poverty schools almost twice as often as they are assigned to low-poverty schools.

Some school leaders are finding ways to break these long-standing patterns in their communities. In North Carolina, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is working to attract and retain its most effective teachers to its low-performing schools by giving these campuses top status in the district and making them desirable places to work.

Charlotte’s Strategic Staffing Initiative relies on strong principal leadership and staffing flexibility. In fact, the superintendent gives these school leaders authority to change whatever they need to – without district interference – as long as the school produces strong learning gains within three years. After Year One, all schools in the initiative increased student achievement, and more district schools are expected to join.

“Equity doesn’t happen by accident,” said Haycock. “A variety of forces are at play when it comes to who teaches whom. But what leaders in Charlotte and a handful of other states and districts are showing is that by deliberately deploying the right combination of accountability and incentives, we can ensure that students who need the most from school get the teachers who are best equipped to help them succeed.”

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