Study says poor and minority students are shortchanged on teacher quality

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Low-income and minority students in the nation's public schools often are shortchanged in teacher quality, the one resource they most need to succeed in the classroom, a nationwide study says.

"Research has shown that when it comes to the distribution of the best teachers, poor and minority students do not get their fair share," the Education Trust said in a just-released study of teacher quality in Ohio, Wisconsin and Illinois.

The study by the Washington-based, not-for-profit think tank found:

* Students in high-poverty and high-minority schools are saddled with novice teachers almost twice as often as children in low-poverty districts, the study said.

* Classes in high-poverty and high-minority secondary schools are more likely to be taught by teachers without a major or minor in the subject they teach.

* In Wisconsin, almost one of every two teachers in the highest-minority schools had less than five years of experience compared with only one in five in the schools with the lowest minority enrollment.

* In the highest poverty schools in Chicago, one in eight teachers had failed the test of basic skills.

Cape Girardeau public school officials say minority and low-income students in their district aren't being shortchanged.

But state education statistics for the 2004-2005 school year show that Jefferson Elementary School -- which had the most low-income and black students among the district's five elementary schools -- had a teaching staff with fewer years of experience on average than the other elementary schools.

Jefferson School's professional staff averaged 9.7 years of experience compared with a high of 16.2 years of experience on average at Alma Schrader Elementary.

At Jefferson School, low-income students -- those receiving free or reduced-price lunches -- make up more than 85 percent of enrollment. Nearly 50 percent of the school's students are black.

At Alma Schrader, only 20.9 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and blacks account for only 6.9 percent of enrollment, according to the district's "report card" filed with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Jefferson lags behind Blanchard, Clippard and Alma Schrader schools in terms of the number of teachers with advanced degrees and is only ahead of Franklin Elementary School. Nearly 46 percent of Jefferson's professional staff have advanced degrees. By contrast, 58 percent of Clippard's professional staff has advanced degrees.

But Gerald Richards, Cape Girardeau public schools personnel director, cautions against reading too much into statistics.

'Snapshot in time'

"All the statistics, regardless of what we look at, are just a snapshot in time. Those things change every single day," Richards said.

While he agrees that more experienced teachers are an asset, Richards said it's important not to discount the value of new teachers either.

"They bring in new ideas and bring in enthusiasm and motivation," said Richards.

He said teachers at Jefferson Elementary School for the most part aren't looking to transfer to one of the other elementary schools.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires the nation's schools to have all classes taught by highly qualified teachers as of July.

Under federal law, teachers must be certified in all of the subjects and grade levels they teach to be considered highly qualified.

Ninety-six percent of Cape Girardeau public school teachers are listed as highly qualified. Richards said the rest typically are in the process of receiving the necessary state certification.

Such bureaucracy can be time consuming. Richards said the state still hasn't come up with certification requirements for the district's aviation instructor even though the state has approved the aviation course and the district began teaching it at the Cape Girardeau Career and Technology Center last fall.

"Those things can tear your hair out whenever you look at statistics," he said.

The national study defines high-poverty schools as those where 63 percent or more of the students receive free or reduced-price lunch.

The Cairo, Ill., School District qualifies as a high-poverty district. Almost all of its students receive free or reduced-price lunches, superintendent Gary Whitledge said.

More than 90 percent of its students are black.

The study would suggest that the district would be full of inexperienced teachers. But Whitledge said just the opposite is true. Teaching experience averages just more than 18 years.

The superintendent credits that to a declining enrollment that has forced the district to lay off teachers who have only taught in the district for a few years.

That poses a problem in the future when those experienced teachers retire, Whitledge said. The district, he said, could see its teaching experience average drop sharply as new, inexperienced teachers are hired to fill those slots.

And that could affect learning. "I think common sense will tell us that an experienced teacher is going to deliver the service a little bit better," Whitledge said.

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