Across the state, a teacher divide; Study: Veteran, certified educators aren’t going where they’re needed

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Poor kids. Kids who can’t speak English well. Kids stuck in low-performing schools.

Often, they’re the students most in need of highly qualified, experienced teachers.

But according to a new statewide analysis by The Dallas Morning News, they’re also the students least likely to have them.

The study found that schools serving large numbers of poor and minority students have fewer experienced teachers and fewer who are certified in the subjects they teach.

It also found that the higher a school is rated on the state’s accountability scale, the more likely its students are taught by well-prepared, veteran teachers.

“Sadly, it’s the same pattern that you see nationally,” said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based education reform group. “We take the kids who are really the most dependent on their teachers for academic learning and systematically assign them our weakest teachers.”

The analysis, using data from the State Board for Educator Certification, rated more than 7,000 Texas public schools based on how many of their teachers are certified and experienced. Based on the data, each school is given a Teacher Preparation Index rating from 1 to 10. (For more detail on how these ratings were derived, see box on Page 27A.)

The TPI allows analysis of how certified, veteran teachers are distributed across the state. Among the findings:

* Schools whose student bodies are more than 90 percent white have an average TPI of 6.3. For schools that are almost entirely Hispanic, that average was 4.6. For blacks, the number was 3.4.

* A similar pattern arose for schools with large numbers of poor students and those serving many students with difficulty speaking English.

* Schools that did better on state standardized tests tend to have more certified and experienced teachers. For example, schools that the state rates as “exemplary” – its highest rating – averaged a TPI of 6.4. Schools rated “low-performing” averaged 3.5.

* As a district, the Dallas schools had a TPI of 2.0, the lowest of the state’s major urban districts and fourth-lowest in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

“One of the goals of our district is a fully certified workforce,” said Willie Crowder, DISD’s associate superintendent for human resource services. “We’re making progress, and we’re working toward that goal.”

Some critics would call the unequal distribution of qualified teachers inefficient, or even unjust. But soon it also will be a violation of federal law.

No Child Left Behind, the federal education bill signed into law last year, requires states and districts to ensure that poor and minority students are not taught disproportionately by “unqualified, out-of-field, or inexperienced teachers.”

Based on the TPI analysis, many Texas districts have a lot of work to do to meet that goal.

“Everybody is chasing after the same pool of qualified teachers,” said Hurst-Euless-Bedford ISD Superintendent Gene Buinger, whose district had a TPI of 7.0, one of the region’s highest. “But not everyone can get them. It has tragic consequences for youngsters.”

Supply and demand

For years, educators have talked about Texas’ teacher shortage.

There are still more people who want to teach than slots to put them in. Even medium-size districts often get applications from hundreds or thousands more teachers than they have positions to fill.

But there is a shortage of certified and experienced teachers.

The result is a marketplace that would make economist Adam Smith proud. Schools compete fiercely for the most sought-after teachers: the ones with solid track records and those in subjects such as math, science or bilingual education that face tighter job markets.

Many teachers get their first jobs in places some consider – rightly or wrongly – less desirable, often because pay is low or the students are considered more difficult to teach. When they’ve spent a few years learning their trade and gaining experience, they move on to more desirable grounds.

The TPI analysis indicates that, in the Dallas area, those “starter schools” are often central city campuses or schools in southern Dallas County districts such as DeSoto and Lancaster.

Those schools, beset by high numbers of inexperienced, uncertified teachers, typically scored poorly in the analysis. Lancaster ISD earned the lowest possible rating, 1.0, in part because more than half of its teachers are not certified in the subjects they teach.

DeSoto has a districtwide TPI of 1.3.

“Without any reservation, I can tell you that our biggest challenge, our biggest obstacle to reaching excellence has been teacher quality and teacher quantity,” DeSoto Superintendent Jim Hawkins said.

Dr. Hawkins said nearly a third of the district’s teachers leave every year, often for other Dallas-Fort Worth schools. DeSoto pays starting teachers $32,000 a year – more than $6,000 less than many other area districts.

“We get them here, we train them, we get them certified,” Dr. Hawkins said. “But we’re kind of the bottom of the food chain in Dallas County. They go off to another district. It’s two steps forward, one back.”

Up the food chain

To understand the teacher food chain, follow the career of Trisha Salazar.

When she graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington 10 years ago, Ms. Salazar hoped to work in H-E-B ISD – and was flat-out rejected. Jobs in the Tarrant County district are some of the most sought-after in the region.

“I could barely get an interview,” Ms. Salazar said.

Instead, she took a job teaching English at a southern Dallas County middle school. It didn’t pay much ($19,000 a year), and she said the school didn’t treat teachers with respect. There were discipline problems, and her class size hit 35.

As a result, teachers churned in and out of the school: When Ms. Salazar left after two years to have her first child, she was one of about 20 teachers quitting.

That school’s TPI score is 1.3, one of the region’s lowest and a sign of the problems it has holding teachers.

Last year, more than half its teachers were not fully certified in the subjects they taught.

After a year off, Ms. Salazar tried again to catch on in H-E-B. Again, she was rejected. But she landed a spot at another middle school, one with a TPI of 2.0. Ms. Salazar said the school was “full of teachers on emergency certification. They didn’t know what they were doing.”

She quit again when her second child was born. She did some tutoring at a nearby elementary school (TPI: 2.3) and saw teachers she wouldn’t wish on her children’s enemies.

“There was one lady who had been teaching three years uncertified,” Ms. Salazar said. “She’d taken the test the ExCET test, then required for state certification three times and she couldn’t pass. She was the poorest teacher I’d ever witnessed.”

The woman wasn’t brought back for a fourth year, Ms. Salazar said. “But three years of kids had to suffer through her.”

All throughout this span, Ms. Salazar kept asking H-E-B officials about jobs. But openings were rare. “The schools have such a good reputation that I figured they must be doing something right,” she said. “They’re so selective because so many people want to get in here.”

She has finally landed a job at Spring Garden Elementary (TPI: 9.0), where she will teach language arts to sixth-graders. Unlike her previous schools, which had to hire teachers by the dozen each year, Spring Garden had only one opening this year.

Staying put

That kind of stability, many educators say, is key to getting strong academic performances out of kids.

“The teachers who are here just enjoy being here,” said Pamela Day, principal of Fort Worth’s Charles Nash Elementary. “We’re like a family here. We’re all focused on educating these kids.”

Nash serves a highly disadvantaged student body. Eighty-seven percent of the students are poor, 93 percent are minorities and 33 percent speak a language other than English.

But it also has received a “recognized” rating, the state’s second-highest. Its TPI is 8.3, reflecting its low rate of teacher turnover.

“The people who come here stay – they don’t move to other schools,” Ms. Day said. “The teachers all know the curriculum and how we teach here. They’ve been through all the pendulum swings in education, and they can draw on their own previous experiences.”

This year, Ms. Day has only two openings. One teacher decided to become a missionary; another retired. Both spots will be filled with certified teachers, she said.

But The News’ study indicates that places such as Nash, where poor and minority students are taught by an almost entirely certified and experienced teaching corps, are not the norm in Texas.

It’s not the first time the trend has been noticed. A June analysis by the State Board for Educator Certification found that schools where more than three-quarters of students are black have twice as many uncertified teachers as schools where less than one-quarter are black. A similar, although smaller, gap exists for Hispanics.

The gaps are even more stark if one looks only at core academic subjects such as English and math. The certification board study found schools that were mostly black had four times as many uncertified teachers in those subjects than schools with few blacks.

Even when teachers remain in the same school district, transfer rules often allow good teachers to leave schools where working conditions are more challenging for schools where the work is easier.

“Unfortunately, in education, your status flows not from how good a teacher you are, but from how elite the kids you teach are,” Ms. Haycock said. “The teachers who should get fired get hidden in low-income schools instead. The teachers who can transfer to a better school do.”

Out-of-field teaching

Education researchers rarely find points of universal agreement; conflict and contradiction are the rule. But they do largely agree that teachers who have strong knowledge of their subject area tend to produce better results in their students.

In other words, if your biology teacher really understands biology, you’ll probably learn more than if he doesn’t know an artery from an arthropod without the textbook in front of him.

But even when schools do manage to attract certified teachers, instructors often are given assignments they’re not properly prepared for. The problem is called out-of-field teaching.

“It’s kind of a no-brainer that it’s a bad idea, but principals keep doing it,” said Richard Ingersoll, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a leading authority on out-of-field teaching.

About 3 million American high school students are taught core academic subjects each year by teachers who have neither a college major nor minor in the field, he said.

Dr. Ingersoll became interested in the subject through his own experience – he spent six years as a high school history teacher. He remembers once getting a memo from his principal five days before school started: “I was told, ‘There’s been a change: You’ll be teaching some algebra.'”

He had no experience teaching math. He hurriedly begged his math colleagues for worksheets and teaching hints. He tried his best, but he knows his students didn’t get what they deserved.

“Teaching math takes different skills than teaching English or history,” said Dr. Ingersoll, who also ended up teaching English and special education during his brief teaching career.

He said that he, like other teachers ill-prepared for their classes, struggled to keep up: working late every night just to stay a half-chapter ahead of his students.

“If you don’t know what you’re doing, there’s a heck of a lot of trial and error,” he said. “The students end up being the guinea pigs.”