Teaching Inequality: How Poor and Minority Students are Shortchanged on Teacher Quality

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Publication date: 
June 6 2006 (All day)

(Washington, D.C.) – A report out today from the Education Trust provides new information on the impact of teacher quality on student achievement and offers specific steps states should take to remedy the persistent practice of denying the best teachers to the children who need them the most.

The report, Teaching Inequality: How Poor and Minority Students Are Shortchanged on Teacher Quality, comes as states prepare their plans to ensure that low-income students and students of color receive their fair share of experienced, qualified teachers. Those equity plans must be delivered to the U.S. Secretary of Education by July 7 -- and mark the first time that the federal government has demanded that states confront and fix the unfair distribution of teacher talent in their states.

The report also offers some key findings of soon-to-be released research in three states – Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin – and major school systems within them. Funded by The Joyce Foundation and conducted with policymakers and researchers on the ground, the research project reveals that schools in these states and districts with high percentages of low-income and minority students are more likely to have teachers who are inexperienced, have lower basic academic skills or are not highly qualified -- reflecting troublesome national teacher distribution patterns.

Among the most alarming evidence in the project came from Illinois, where researchers developed an index of teacher-quality. This index, based on factors like teachers’ performance on college-admissions tests, the selectivity of the college they attended and the percentage of teachers in a school who failed the state’s certification exam on the first try revealed a painful truth: Illinois students in the highest-minority and highest-poverty schools are assigned teachers of significantly lower quality than their counterparts in schools that serve few low-income students and students of color.

The Illinois research also demonstrates the clear link between teacher quality and student achievement. In the highest-poverty high schools with high teacher-quality indices, twice as many students met state standards as did students in other similarly high-poverty high schools with low teacher-quality indices.

Researchers also found stunning differences in students’ readiness for college depending on the quality of teachers in their schools. Students in Illinois who attended schools with average teacher quality and only completed math up to Algebra II actually were more ready for college than their peers who completed calculus but went to schools with the lowest-teacher quality.

"For a very long time, we've allowed the public to believe that poor and minority children are performing below other children simply because they enter school behind,” said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust. “As the data in this report make clear, however, much of the achievement gap is not about the kids and their families after all.

“Rather, we take the children who come to us with less and give them less in school, too--including less of the very resource they need the most: high-quality teachers," Haycock said.

 Among other selected findings from the Midwest research:

 

  • In Chicago, one out of every eight teachers in the highest-poverty schools failed the test of basic skills at least once – twice the rate of teachers at low-poverty schools.
  • In Wisconsin, low-performing schools have approximately twice the percentage of novice teachers as high-performing schools.
  • At high-minority elementary schools in Ohio, one in eight teachers are not “highly qualified” compared to one in 50 teachers at elementary schools serving the smallest proportion of students of color.

“This research shows once again that good teachers can have an enormous impact on student achievement,” said Ellen Alberding, President of the Joyce Foundation. “Midwest states and districts have taken a courageous first step by documenting the inequities in the way our schools are staffed. Now we need to implement strategies that promise to attract and retain strong teachers for our highest-need schools.”  

The Ed Trust report recommends a range of strategies to end the unfair distribution of teacher talent, including:

 

  • Scaling back prerogatives that allow experienced teachers to pick their assignments.
  • Providing salary incentives to attract high-quality, experienced principals to work in schools that serve high concentrations of poor and minority students and linking their pay to improved conditions and improved achievement.
  • Identifying effective teachers and paying them more to teach in schools with shortages.
  • Taking a cue from professional sports and start using a “draft strategy,” which would put high-poverty, struggling schools at the head of the hiring line, allowing them to have the first pick of teaching talent.
  • Giving teachers who work in the poorest communities fully paid sabbaticals.
  • Reserving tenure for those teachers who demonstrate effectiveness at producing student learning.
  • Banning unfair budgeting practices that allow the most advantaged schools to “buy” more than their share of the most highly paid teachers.

The equity plans that states will submit to the U.S. Department of Education must describe the specific steps policymakers will take to ensure that poor and minority students are not taught disproportionately by inexperienced, unqualified or out-of-field teachers.

“This step is long overdue and reflects growing recognition that we can’t close achievement gaps without also addressing gaps in teacher quality,” said Heather Peske, who co-authored the report and coordinated the research project. “Accountability by itself doesn’t improve student achievement. Expectations and standards are important, but nothing is more important than the quality of the classroom teacher.”

The need for equity plans is evident in both state-reported numbers on the distribution of highly qualified teachers and the most recent and reliable federal data. A state-by-state chart in the report highlights these disparities.

“These persistent inequities in teacher quality mock this nation’s commitment to equal opportunity,” said Ross Wiener, policy director of the Education Trust. “Instead of organizing our schools to close achievement gaps, we have created a caste system that metes out opportunity based on wealth and privilege and ignores the needs of students.

“Educators and policymakers must confront these destructive practices and work to give low-income students and students of color equal access to effective teachers,” Wiener said.

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The Education Trust works for the high academic achievement of all students at all levels, pre-kindergarten through college, and forever closing the achievement gaps that separate low-income students and students of color from other youth.

Based in Chicago with assets of over $800 million, the Joyce Foundation invests approximately $8 million annually in efforts to improve the quality of education for Midwest children, especially by promoting early childhood education and improving the quality of teaching in low-performing schools.