In Urban Classrooms, the Least Experienced Teach the Neediest Kids

article | June 15, 2009

    MaryEllen McGuire

The following op-ed originally appeared in U.S. News & World Report on Friday, June 12th and can be accessed here. The full report, Equitable Resources in Low Income Schools: Teacher Equity and the Federal Title I Comparability Requirement, can be read here.

Imagine for a moment that you are driving your child to the hospital. She has a high fever and is suffering from severe abdominal pain. It's unclear what's wrong but she is in definite need of medical attention.

Now imagine that the only doctor on call is a recently graduated medical student. It's her first day on the job and there is no experienced physician or surgeon available for consultation. Are you satisfied with this level of care for your child? I wouldn't be. I'd want to benefit from the knowledge of a more experienced physician. Wouldn't you?

Unfortunately, a similar scenario is playing out in America's urban classrooms with shocking regularity. Teachers with the least experience are educating the most disadvantaged students in the highest poverty, most challenging schools. Low-income kids are being "triaged" not by experienced teachers, but by those with fewer than three years of teaching to go on.

Does it matter? Absolutely. According to the research, teacher experience is at least a partial predictor of success in the classroom and, at present, one of the only approximations for teacher quality widely available. Experienced teachers tend to have better classroom management skills and a stronger command of curricular materials. Novice teachers on the other hand struggle during their initial years in any classroom.

Why are our least experienced professionals consistently being handed the most challenging teaching assignments? Because of the way seniority is rewarded in teacher contracts. More often that not, union contracts dictate that veteran teachers get first dibs on available positions within a school system. As a result, when given the chance, teachers often choose to transfer to more desirable, low-poverty schools. As a result of these transfers, students with the greatest educational need are time and time again taught by the least experienced teachers.

How bad is the problem? According to the National Center for Education Statistics, schools with the most low-income and minority students employ almost twice the proportion of teachers with fewer than three years of experience as higher-income and low-minority schools.

Disparities also exist in the distribution of teachers who are highly qualified in their subject areas as defined by No Child Left Behind. According to an Ohio study, one of every eight teachers in schools within the highest poverty and minority levels was not highly qualified, compared with only one of every 50 teachers in the lowest-poverty schools, and one of every 67 teachers in the lowest-minority schools.

Ultimately, disparities in teacher experience and credentials put low-income students at a disadvantage and perpetuate the achievement gap.

You may question whether policymakers are wholly insensitive to these inequities. They are not. When the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was originally passed in 1965, lawmakers inserted specific provisions to ensure that low-income students were provided services "comparable" to those provided to their more wealthy peers. These services included the equitable distribution of teachers.

Unfortunately, language subsequently inserted into law has rendered the provision almost meaningless. Since initial passage, lawmakers have decided to exempt teacher seniority from figuring into school comparability calculations. This has allowed school districts across America to hide the fact-under cover of federal law-that their poorest students in their poorest schools are being taught by their least experienced, least expensive teachers. After all, one of the primary determinants of a teacher's salary is years of experience. If this experience is not figured into comparability calculations, a teacher of 10 years and a teacher of 10 days can appear to have the same qualifications. Multiply this several times over and to compliance officers, the schools filled with experienced teachers look "comparable" to those filled with novices.

But there is hope. Recently published guidance related to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act clearly says that if states want to receive the second half of their stimulus funds and be eligible for a portion of Education Secretary Arne Duncan's $5 billion Race to the Top Funds, they must make reforms in four areas-including making improvements in "the equitable distribution of qualified teachers for all students, particularly students who are most in need."

One can assume that those five little words, "equitable distribution of qualified teachers," should translate, at the very least, into the equitable distribution of experienced teachers. Only time will tell how "qualified teachers" is further defined.

What else has got to give? Congress must amend current law. It must remove the seniority exception from federal calculations meant to ensure comparable resources across low-poverty and high-poverty schools. As long as teachers are paid more based on seniority versus other measures of demonstrated success, districts will mask the inequitable distribution of experienced, better paid teachers across their schools. If we truly care about raising student achievement, the truth about teacher qualifications at individual schools has to come out.

Once we can wrap our heads around the true extent of the problem we can start taking down the second obstacle: figuring out a way to entice more experienced teachers to teach in high need schools. This will require a long-term commitment to systemic reform including investing in low-poverty schools to make them more attractive teaching placements and funding incentives to initially attract experienced and, we hope, higher quality teachers to low-income schools.

Will this require dollars beyond what we have? Not necessarily.

Federal law already provides schools with money to pay for this. It's just that the funds typically go to reduce class sizes or provide professional development for teachers instead - strategies that have mixed results. Some of these funds should be redirected to pay for incentives drawing teachers into high-poverty schools. This is also a great use of stimulus money.

Secretary Duncan has said that the top priority for stimulus dollars "is to do right by our schools and our kids." A first step in this process is advancing reforms so that the most experienced teachers are matched with the children who need them most. To do otherwise is unfair not only to the next generation of teachers but to those who should be of primary concern: our students.


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    MaryEllen McGuire