"600 Words by Esther J. Cepeda"
Last week a study was released that detailed how frequently high-poverty schools employ teachers to teach a subject for which they don't have an undergraduate degree.
The Associated Press story said, "Math can be hard enough, but imagine the difficulty when a teacher is just one chapter ahead of the students. It happens, and it happens more often to poor and minority students."
It certainly happened to my students – I was one of those teachers. I taught pre-algebra, algebra 1, and algebra 2 as a bilingual teacher to low-income Spanish speakers in a north suburban high school in Illinois. Was I always "just a chapter ahead?" Heck yeah it happened – my undergrad was in journalism! But let me start back at the beginning…
In their report, CORE PROBLEMS: Out-of-Field Teaching Persists in Key Academic Courses, Especially in America's High-Poverty and High-Minority Schools, the Education Trust, a children's education advocacy group, found that "in America’s secondary schools, low-income students and students of color are about twice as likely as other students to be enrolled in core academic classes taught by out-of-field teachers… who possess neither certification in the subject they have been assigned to teach nor an academic major in that subject."
They found that in middle and high school mathematics, for example:
· Four in ten classes in high-poverty schools are taught by an out-of-field teacher, compared with 16.9 percent in schools serving the fewest low-income students.
· In schools with high percentages of African-American and Latino students, nearly one-third of mathematics classes are taught by out-of-field teachers, compared with 15.5 percent in schools with relatively few minority students.
Tell me about it. When I started teaching all I cared about was providing excellent teaching to the neediest of students – the poor ones who couldn't speak English. I passed the state of Illinois' exams to prove I was fluent in written and spoken Spanish and assured the principal of the school who had approached me about the position that I could definitely teach algebra.
Well, that part wasn't a complete lie – for the most part the classes were a walk in the park for two reasons: 1) I love math and found all the material covered in the state-and-federal-teaching-standard-approved text books to be super-easy and 2) the students were operating a good two full grade-levels behind their peers and needed to be taught the most basic math skills before even tackling the more abstract aspects of Algebra. It was tragic.
And why, you ask? Because many students showed up to class with no more than a Mexican fifth-grade education. Because every year for the past three years the high school had burned through yet another non-math-degreed bilingual teacher (the guy before me had been dismissed for stealing money from the soccer team). And because, generally speaking, kids in bilingual ed got promoted no matter what their grades or abilities were.
I had kids in pre-algebra who didn't have the basics of multiplication or division down pat, and kids in algebra 2 who absolutely could not maneuver the very simplest of algebraic equations. It didn't help that they were stuck with the odd, hard-core teacher who insisted on teaching mostly in English – the language of the work-force they'd be entering in a few months.
Still, I was a true-believer and felt that as long as I brushed up on all my lessons the day before – and took full advantage of tutoring from the real math teachers who were blown away by my dedication to uphold the department's math standards and get my crews up to snuff like the white kids – everything would be alright.
It was and it wasn't. There were times I fumbled a lesson and confused the kids more than I taught them, but mostly I worked my ass off and learned – then learned how to teach – complex lessons that boggled even the "regular ed" kids. Not that they are immune.
The Education Trust points out that "while out-of-field teaching is particularly acute in mathematics and in high-poverty and high-minority schools, the problem is pervasive. Nationwide, more than 17 percent of all core academic courses (English, math, social studies, and science) in grades 7-12 are taught by an out-of-field teacher. In the middle grades alone, the rate jumps to 40 percent."
How can this happen even in Illinois, which has some of the most stringent teaching requirements in the nation?
Seven years ago, Congress required all core academic classes be taught by "highly qualified" teachers and asked districts and states to assure that poor and minority children weren't taught disproportionately by inexperienced, unqualified, or out-of-field teachers.
But, the federal law gave states wide latitude to define "highly qualified," and most states used that discretion to deem nearly every teacher as "highly qualified." The U.S. Department of Education essentially looked the other way, refusing to use its authority to press states either to set high standards for teachers or to solve the equity problems.
Apparently, secondary teachers certified in one subject continue to be assigned frequently to teach classes in additional subjects for which they're often unqualified and unprepared. States may be sweeping this problem under the rug – but out of necessity, not malevolence. Frankly, there are probably one or two bilingually fluent "real" math teachers in Illinois and they are probably working for somewhere close to a zillion bucks at a "good" school. So, my students were stuck with me.
As it turns out, they started cracking down at the end of the school year – 2006 – and despite my master's degree in education, I was terminated from my math teaching gig and offered a job back in the primary grades where my undergraduate degree supposedly would have no bearing on my ability to teach well.
So when the last bell of the school year rang, the rapport and trust I'd built with the lowest achievers in my school went out the window. The phenomenal gains in math ability that almost every single one of my students made throughout the year came to a screeching halt – as did the incredible gains in English-language acquisition most of them made. There was no candidate in sight who could do the job better than me but it didn't matter: after summer break my students would be welcomed back to class by yet another new person who probably would not last.
"Conversations about the achievement gap often turn too easily to what’s not happening in students’ homes. These data make clear that we need to put much more emphasis on what’s not happening in classrooms," said Ross Wiener, vice president of The Education Trust said in the press release they sent me. "Unless we boost the overall strength of our teaching force and ensure that all young people have equal access to well-prepared teachers, other strategies to improve student achievement are unlikely to succeed."
Hear, hear! And unless school systems across the country start making it easier for teachers who really care to teach the most underprivileged students in the toughest schools – but can't afford yet another four or five years of pricey post-secondary classes to bone up on those core classes – there will never be enough highly-qualified teachers to go around.
Esther J. Cepeda writes the "600 Words" & "Pregunta del Dia" columns, and is also the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission. Her views and reporting do not necessarily reflect those of ISAC. "600 words" is a registered trademark of EeJayCee, Inc., Copyright 2008. May be reprinted with permission, contact firstname.lastname@example.org