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Law fails to remove green teachers from classrooms

Kenneth J. Cooper | 6/28/2011, 11:24 p.m.

By 2008, 95 percent of high school teachers in core academic subjects met that standard, according to the department’s analysis of state reports.

“Just about everybody now is highly qualified,” Almy says. By that sole standard, low-income students in schools where they are concentrated are unlikely to be shortchanged.

But an Education Trust study that Almy coauthored last year found that high-poverty schools were almost twice as likely to have core academic classes taught by instructors working outside their specialty — 20 percent versus 11 percent. That phenomenon is known as teaching “out of field.”

That study, titled “Not Prepared for Class,” also found that low-income students in cities and small towns were twice as likely to be taught by first-year teachers. In suburbs and rural areas, there was almost no difference where rookies were assigned.

Las Vegas has adopted a policy of denying requests from “out-of-field” teachers for transfers into high-poverty schools.

“As far as out-of-field teachers, I pretty much have zero tolerance for that,” says Andre Yates, director of licensed personnel, licensure and recruitment for the Clark County School District there. He estimates that about 12 of the district’s 18,000 teachers were in that situation briefly during the current school year.

Another shortcoming with the federal law’s definition of highly qualified teachers is that, despite their credentials, they may not be effective in the classroom, as measured by academic progress of their students.

Ali and Almy agree that the definition in the federal education law, which Congress is rewriting, should be more performance-based.

The Obama administration’s proposal for the rewritten law, Ali says, will insist on “real reporting of teacher equity by race and poverty” and prod states to differentiate teachers based on their effectiveness, including some measure of their students’ growth.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina has taken that approach to assessing teacher quality as the district has assembled new teams to uplift academically faltering schools with high percentages of low-income students.

The principal chosen to take over a school in the “Strategic Staffing Initiative” is permitted to bring along five effective teachers — those whose students have made more than a year’s academic progress. The principal can also oust five teachers. As a result, high-poverty schools have gained more than 100 effective teachers and lost about the same number of less effective ones in four years.

The initiative started in 2007 and has expanded gradually to include 24 schools as of this coming fall. At the first 20 schools, academic gains have generally been much higher than those in the entire urban-suburban district. On average, 88 percent of students in those schools are from low-income families, according to an analysis of district figures.

The program has attracted considerable national attention. Ann Clark, the district’s chief academic officer, finds it dismaying that more school districts do not strategically assign their best teachers.

“It’s putting your talent where your need is,” she says. “The fact that that’s not happening on a scale that we need is ironic. I hope it becomes the norm.”

Targeting teachers is expected in all of the district’s 178 schools, Clark says. “We expect every principal in every school to put their best teachers in the classes with the neediest students.”

This story first appeared in America’s Wire, an independent, nonprofit news service run by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.