A lesson in reality: inequality in teacher quality

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The Education Trust is out with a fascinating and significant report that may move us all a little closer to an improved and much needed definition of a highly qualified teacher. In Teaching Inequality: How Poor and Minority Students Are Shortchanged on Teacher Quality, Kati Haycock and Heather Peske, along with teams of researchers (made up of district officials, union reps, business leaders and community groups) looked at teacher demographics in Chicago, Cleveland and Milwaukee. Each team studied multiple indicators of teacher quality in their respective districts, only to find some unfortunate but not so surprising results: poor and minority students are disproportionately assigned to novice teachers and teachers lacking subject matter expertise in their field. "These students are lacking the one resource they most need...high quality teachers."

The Illinois Education Research Council took this data a step beyond and created the Teacher Quality Index, which is based on a mix of teacher attributes that are related, though sometimes imperfectly, to student achievement. The indicators include the following:

*Teacher literacy--at last!--as measured by a teacher's standardized test scores. Despite the fact that researchers have known for years that literacy levels matter far more than advanced degrees and certification status, this attribute continues to be shamefully undervalued by most districts.

*Teacher content knowledge--teachers who major or minor in a subject that they teach (or pass a test in the subject area) routinely elicit higher student achievement. This is of particular importance at the secondary level. At the elementary level, it's probably just another way of measuring literacy, which generally equates to broad subject matter knowledge.

*Having more than 2 years of experience in the classroom--the research consensus is that this is what is needed before a teacher becomes about as effective as s/he will ever be. Conversely, the teacher attribute that inflicts the most harm on students is the first-year teacher.

* Pedagogical skill--content knowledge alone is not sufficient for effective teaching; however, the value of teacher certification, advanced degrees and pedagogy courses has yet to show a consistent or effective correlation with teacher quality or student achievement.

The results are powerful. Schools in Illinois reporting a high teacher quality index, no matter what else was stacked against them, get great results. Schools with a low teacher quality index can't climb out of the hole they're in, no matter what they else they do. For example, students in high-poverty schools with a high index were nearly twice as likely to meet state standards as students in similar schools with a low teacher quality index. With all the increased attention to math and science achievement, the figures are even more striking. 81 percent of students demonstrated college math readiness after taking a Calculus course from a teacher in the highest "teacher quality index" quartile as opposed to only 16 percent of students who were taught by a teacher in the lowest TQI quartile. Convincing research with even more promising potential!