States have two weeks to comply with the latest requirement of the federal No Child Left Behind Act and come up with a solution to what U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings calls teaching's "dirty little secret":
The disparity in teacher quality between poor, largely minority schools and their more affluent, white counterparts.
The challenge of ensuring that schools have equal numbers of good teachers will involve huge changes in the way schools recruit, train, prepare and compensate teachers, said Scott Emerick, a policy expert for the Center for Teacher Quality , a research organization based in Chapel Hill, N.C. "There's no silver-bullet solution to do this on the cheap," he said.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Education announced that no state had achieved one of NCLB's key provisions - that all core academic classes, such as math and reading, have a highly qualified teacher by the end of the 2005-06 school year. States were given until July 7 to submit a revised plan that ensures that all classrooms have a highly qualified teacher and that those teachers are evenly divided between poor and rich schools. At risk is a loss of federal funds.
The Department of Education has specifically criticized Alaska, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina and Washington for failing to make a "goo d-faith effort" to begin meeting the law's teacher-quality goal. The department said those states failed to submit accurate or complete teacher data.
President Bush made the No Child Left Behind Act a centerpiece of his domestic agenda and lobbied hard for passage in 2002. The law aims to have all students proficient in reading and math by 2014, and to narrow the achievement gap between poor and minority students and wealthier white students. Although the law won bipartisan congressional support, it has come under fire from critics who accuse Washington, D.C., of dictating education policy and failing to provide local schools with the resources needed to comply.
Several states have rebelled against provisions that require testing each year in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school. Schools that fail to show annual improvements in test scores in all racial and demographic groups could be hit with sanctions.
The act's latest requirement is that states prove that all their teachers are "highly qualified" - meaning they have a bachelor's degree, state certification, and competency in every core subject they teach - and that those teachers are evenly apportioned between poor and affluent schools.
A recent Education Trust report revealed large discrepancies in teacher qualifications in Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin between poor and rich schools, and between mostly white schools and mostly minority ones.
In Ohio's poorest elementary schools, for example, one of every eight teachers is not considered highly qualified, but in the state's richest schools, that number falls to one in 67 teachers. In Wisconsin, schools with the highest minority student populations have more than twice as many novice teachers as schools with the lowest numbers of minority students.
Among the report's recommendations for narrowing the teacher disparity gap is that school districts follow the lead of the NBA and NFL player drafts and allow high-poverty schools to have first choice in teacher selection. Other suggestions include providing fully paid sabbaticals to allow teachers to "recharge" their batteries, and reducing class loads for teachers in high-need schools.
The Education Trust, headquartered in Washington, D.C., receives some of its money from The Pew Charitable Trusts, which also funds Stateline.org .
States already have started addressing teacher quality inequity with financial incentives to attract teachers to high-poverty, high-need schools, including:
- A Michigan bill that would forgive 10 percent of state loans for every year a teacher works in a poor, low-performing school
- A University of North Carolina proposal, pending in the Legislature, to give 90 beginning math teachers $15,000 more than the state's starting salary to work in poor districts
- A proposal by Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle to rehire retired teachers for difficult-to-fill classrooms while allowing them to keep their full retirement benefits.
States also are experimenting with tactics to attract top recruits. One plan is "Grow Your Own" teacher, where school districts identify potential teachers from among their own students and offer them incentives and scholarships to return home after college to teach.
Last year, Illinois took that idea statewide. It identifies nontraditional teacher candidates, such as paraprofessionals, parents and older adults with little or no college experience, and helps them earn credentials. The state's new budget includes $3 million for the program, which aims to add 1,000 teachers to poor minority schools over the next decade.
South Dakota also has struggled to find teachers for high-need areas. Melody Schopp, director of accreditation and teacher quality, said the state is involved in alternative programs such as Troops to Teachers and Transition to Teaching, which encourage professionals in other fields to switch to teaching.
The state also recently joined the Teach for America program, which sends teachers to high-need areas. Most of these programs operate in inner-city areas, but two years ago South Dakota became the second state, after New Mexico, to use Teach for America to serve Native American students on reservations — "as isolated and poverty-stricken as you can get," Schopp said.
Before the program, those schools "would have 30, 40 substitutes every year with no teaching backgrounds, a ton of turnover," she said. "So these young people have filled those gaps. We didn't get any other teachers to stay, but they can give us two powerful years."
Emerick in Chapel Hill doubts such efforts alone will be enough, saying there is too much focus on recruiting teachers and not enough on retaining them. About half of all new teachers leave the profession in the first five years, he said, and high-poverty schools lose twice as many as their more affluent cousins.
The problem, Emerick said, is that many states "have looked at this as a supply issue and tried to bring in more candidates." Instead, they should focus more on improving work conditions, like providing new teachers with more preparation as well as a full-time mentor.
" A huge part of it is whether or not a school can create a culture that supports teachers to where they want to stay in a school building," he said.