A new study of teacher quality in three Midwestern states validates a well-known fact: That poor and minority children are more likely to be taught by teachers who lack experience, are uncertified or have flunked basic skills tests.

The states and districts studied have a long way to go, according to the report, to meet a No Child Left Behind deadline next month to submit plans for ensuring that their low-income and minority students have equal access to qualified teachers.

Lower teacher quality is linked to lower student achievement, according to the report by the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based policy institute. In Illinois, researchers found a strong relationship between teacher quality and how well students scored on state tests, even after other factors such as poverty or race were considered.

“If we don’t close these gaps in access to quality teachers, then we are likely to continue to see gaps in achievement,” says Heather Peske, co-author of the Education Trust’s report.

In Chicago, teachers working in schools with the highest poverty rates were twice as likely as those in low-poverty schools to have failed a basic skills test required to obtain a teaching license. In schools where more than 90 percent of students are low-income, one of every eight teachers failed the exam at least once.

Compared to other districts in Illinois, CPS ranked among the lowest in teacher quality.

• Three in four CPS schools are among those with the lowest ratings for teacher quality.

• Only 21 CPS schools are among those with highest teacher quality ratings.

Statewide, schools that enroll the highest percentages of low-income and minority students ranked lowest on a teacher quality scale, which measures teacher characteristics and credentials that have been found to affect student achievement. Those include: average ACT scores, years of teaching experience, certification, type of college attended and whether a basic skills test was passed on the first attempt.

Over 80 percent of those schools ranked in the lowest category of teacher quality while only one percent ranked in the top quality group. [See chart]

Lower teacher quality was also linked to lower student achievement.

• In elementary and middle schools, student pass rates on state tests went up as a school’s teacher quality ranking increased, a finding that held even when students background was taken into consideration.

• In high schools, students who completed Algebra II at schools with the highest teacher quality outperformed those who had taken calculus at schools where teacher quality was lowest.

The findings underscore the need for more equitable distribution of top teachers, says Peske.

‘All about money’

The Education Trust report recommends reduced class loads for teachers at high-poverty schools, more time for teacher collaboration and higher pay for the most effective teachers.

Many of the policy reforms will cost more money, Peske acknowledges. However, other ideas, such as “charging” schools the actual cost of teacher salaries from a fixed budget, would make it easier for high-need schools to secure better teachers and limit the number of top teachers that the most desirable schools could hire, she says. Oakland public schools became the first urban district to adopt this practice two years ago. (See Catalyst, December 2005.)

Low-cost incentives to attract teachers to high-need schools will likely be part of the plan that Illinois education officials submit to the U.S. Department of Education in July, the deadline set under No Child Left Behind. Ginger Reynolds, assistant state superintendent for teaching and learning, cites the example of a previous state program that helped paraprofessionals in high-poverty schools to earn teaching licenses. She declined to provide details on the plan.

Relanda Hobbs, principal of Laura Ward Elementary in Humboldt Park, says that what she needs from the state right now is more discretionary money so she won’t be forced to turn away an experienced candidate for an open teaching position. “My budget dictates that I will probably have to hire the recent college grad,” she laments. “It’s all about money.”

Other states and districts examined in the report are Ohio, Wisconsin, Milwaukee and Cleveland.

Click here for a copy of the Education Trust report, “Teaching Inequality: How Poor and Minority Students are Shortchanged on Teacher Quality.”

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