Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Essential: Excellent Educators

I recently read an excerpt from A Notion at Risk: Preserving Public Education as an Engine for Social Mobility*. The section is titled "Inequality in Teaching and Schooling: Supporting High Quality Teaching and Leadership in Low-Income Schools". Here are some interesting points. Most of this post is just quotes from the excerpt, but the quotes pretty much speak for themselves. I will update this post as I read more of the excerpt. 

*This was written in 2000, so the exact statistics are no longer valid. However, I think this paints a fairly accurate picture of the current state of affairs, as not much as changed in our approach to education equality in the last decade or so. 

A. Effective teachers are the key.

The author notes that effective teachers are exceptionally important to the academic growth of a student. Particularly disturbing is the piece I have underlined below. The author explains that certain studies have found that "African-American students are nearly twice as likely to be assigned to the most ineffective teachers and about half as likely to be assigned to the most effective teachers". Whenever I read a statement like this, I think of Jonathan Kozol, a well-known advocate of education reform who spent most of his life teaching in some of the poorest school districts in the country. I recently began reading his book The Shame of the Nation. In his introduction, Kozol talks about how segregated our public school system remains despite the fact that Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka legally integrated American schools nearly fifty years ago. Research like this is evidence that Kozol is correct in his sobering assessment.

"Students who are assigned to several ineffective teachers in a row have significantly lower achievement and smaller gains in mathematics and reading—yielding differences of as much as fifty percentile points over three years—than those who are assigned to several highly effective teachers in sequence. These studies also find troubling indicators for educational equity, noting evidence of strong bias in assignment of students to teachers of different effectiveness levels, including indications that African-American students are nearly twice as likely to be assigned to the most ineffective teachers and about half as likely to be assigned to the most effective teachers."

B. Teacher expertise is a major factor in student achievement.

"In an analysis of nine hundred Texas school districts, Ronald Ferguson found that teachers’ expertise—as measured by scores on a licensing examination, master’s degrees, and experience—accounted for about 40 percent of the measured variance in students’ reading and mathematics achievement at grades 1 through 11, more than any other single factor. He also found that every additional dollar spent on more highly qualified teachers netted greater increases in student achievement than did less instructionally focused uses of school resources. The effects were so strong and the variations in teacher expertise so great that, after controlling for socioeconomic status, the large disparities in achievement between black and white students were almost entirely accounted for by differences in the qualifications of their teachers."

C. Reading achievement correlates with teacher expertise.

This passage made me stop and reflect on how lucky I am to have always had english and history teachers who "use a wide variety of books, newspapers, and materials from other subject areas", "engage students in regular writing", and rarely "use reading kits, basal readers and workbooks".

"The National Assessment of Educational Progress has documented that the qualifications and training of students’ teachers are also among the correlates of reading achievement: students of teachers who are fully certified, who have master’s degrees, and who have had professional coursework in literature-based instruction do better on reading assessment than students whose teachers have not had such learning opportunities. Furthermore, teachers who have had more professional coursework are more likely to use an approach that integrates the teaching of reading with literature and writing, which is associated with stronger achievement. For example, teachers with more staff development hours in reading are much more likely to use a wide variety of books, newspapers, and materials from other subject areas and to engage students in regular writing, all of which are associated with higher reading achievement. They are also less likely to use reading kits, basal readers, and workbooks, which are associated with lower levels of reading achievement." 


D. Expert teachers mean higher-order learning.

I am particularly fond of this passage because I am a fan of problem or project-based, higher-order learning and really, really dislike rote memorization.

"Expert teachers are a prerequisite for the successful implementation of challenging curriculum. Teachers who are well-prepared are better able to use teaching strategies that respond to students’ needs and learning styles and that encourage higher-order learning.15 Since the novel tasks required for problem-solving are more difficult to manage than the routine tasks associated with rote learning, lack of knowledge about how to manage an active, inquiry-oriented classroom can lead teachers to turn to passive tactics that “dumb down” the curriculum, busying students with workbooks and end-of-chapter fill-in-the-blank tests rather than complex tasks like lab work, research projects, and experiments that require more skill to orchestrate."

E. The importance of a good principal.

"While there is no evidence about the relative competence of principals in low-income schools versus schools generally, there is evidence that, all else being equal, principals’ leadership has a great deal to do with which schools are hard to staff. Study after study has noted that good schools in low-income communities have strong principals who serve as instructional leaders. While resources and working conditions certainly matter, research suggests that teachers who have options choose to enter and remain in schools where they feel well supported by the local administrator, irrespective of student wealth or poverty, and that schools with poor leadership typically have difficulty attracting and retaining teachers. In national surveys of teachers about their decisions to remain in teaching, administrative supports matter far more than the characteristics of the student body or even variables like student behavior and parent involvement."

F. The problem of staffing low income schools.

"Although there are many new teachers who cannot find jobs, there are also many job openings for which schools have difficulty finding teachers. In almost every field, schools with the largest numbers of low-income and minority students are much more likely than other schools to report that they have difficulty filling vacancies. These schools are also more likely to fill vacancies with unqualified teachers, substitutes, or teachers from other fields, or to expand class sizes or cancel course offerings when they cannot find teachers."

Minority and low-income students in urban settings are most likely to find themselves in classrooms staffed by inadequately prepared, in- experienced, and ill-qualified teachers because funding inequities, dis- tribution of local power, and labor market conditions conspire to produce shortages of which they bear the brunt. Shortages of qualified teachers also translate into larger class sizes, lack of access to higher- level courses, and poorer teaching."

"These “shortages,” though, are largely a problem of distribution rather than of absolute numbers. Wealthy districts that pay high salaries and offer pleasant working conditions rarely experience shortages. Districts that serve low-income students tend to pay teachers less and offer larger class sizes and pupil loads, fewer materials, and less desirable teaching conditions, including less professional autonomy. They also often have cumbersome and inefficient hiring systems that make the selection process particularly slow and grueling for candidates. For obvious reasons, they have more difficulty recruiting teachers. In 1993–94, for example, schools serving larger numbers of minority and low-income students were four times as likely as whiter and wealthier schools to hire unqualified teachers."

"On virtually every measure, teachers’ qualifications vary by the status of the children they serve. Students in high-poverty schools are not only the least likely to have teachers who are fully qualified, they are also least likely to have teachers with higher levels of education— a master’s, specialist, or doctoral degree. Whereas only 8 percent of public school teachers in low-poverty schools taught without at least a minor in their main academic assignment field, fully one-third of teachers in high-poverty schools taught without at least a minor in their main field, and nearly 70 percent taught without at least a minor in their secondary teaching field. This is problematic given the studies that show lower levels of achievement for students whose teachers are not prepared and certified in the subject area they teach."

G. What state you live in matters.

"Inequality is most pronounced in the states and districts that have invested the least in preparing and hiring high-quality teachers. In states like Connecticut, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, and Wisconsin, nearly all teachers hold both full certification and a major in the field they teach, and few if any are hired on emergency credentials. Not surprisingly, students in these states rank at the top of the distribution in mathematics and reading achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. One might speculate that this distribution is largely a function of states’ student populations; however, research on the determinants of these outcomes has found that states’ levels of student performance are much more strongly predicted by the proportion of well-qualified teachers (those holding full certification plus a major in the field they teach) in the state than by student poverty, language status, or other background variables. As described later, these states have adopted specific policies that have allowed them to provide well-qualified teachers to all students. By contrast, states like Alaska, California, and Louisiana, which rank much lower on overall achievement, have many fewer teachers who are well qualified (that is, who hold certification plus a major in their field) and large numbers of teachers teaching out of field or on emergency credentials. These differently prepared teachers are allocated along class and racial lines.

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