Achievement Gap May Be Tied To Teacher Qualification

Low-income and minority students are twice as likely as White and more affluent students to be assigned the least qualified math and science teachers during their primary and secondary educations, according to a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

The study, “Teacher Quality, Opportunity Gap and National Achievement in 46 Countries,” finds that low-income students are more often taught by teachers who are new to the profession, teachers teaching out of their field of study and teachers with low ACT or SAT scores. The study is based on international mathematics and science study data collected from 46 countries.

The United States ranks fourth out of 46 countries in the education opportunity gap — the disparity that exists in access to highly qualified teachers — and has one of the lowest rates of school retention in the developed world. U.S. students appear to be at a greater risk of failing to complete school than students in other industrialized countries.

Looking through an international prism, the study finds that nearly 22 percent of U.S. children live in poverty, compared with 16 percent of those in the United Kingdom. Roughly 75 percent of American students ages 15 to19 are enrolled in school on a full-time or part-time basis compared with nearly 90 percent in Germany.

Researchers suggest this level of childhood poverty combined with the lack of a strong national system of early childhood education may intensify the significance of opportunity in access to qualified teachers.

The main assumption among education policy makers is that raising certification standards will improve teaching quality, national achievement and economic competitiveness. But opponents argue that constructing measures of teacher quality is challenging due to the lack of consensus on what constitutes a qualified teacher.

No Child Left Behind required that all teachers in core academic subjects be highly qualified by the 2005-06 academic year, yet states still face difficulties in fully meeting these requirements.

“The intention of teacher quality requirements in NCLB is good, but it is not enough,” says Dr. Motoko Akiba, an assistant professor in educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “There is a gap in learning opportunities for teachers. In order to close the opportunity gap in the United States, teachers should have equal opportunities to learn and to expand their knowledge in their field.”

Approximately 67 percent of students with a high socioeconomic status are taught by “highly qualified teachers,” defined as fully certified, having a degree in math or math education and demonstrating competence in subject knowledge and teaching. These “highly qualified teachers” also have at least three years of teaching experience. On the other hand, 53 percent of low-income students have highly qualified teachers. This opportunity gap of 14 percent is larger than the international average of 2.5 percent.

Akiba suggests that the opportunity gap more than likely originates from funding inequities between districts and schools under the decentralized U.S. educational system, which draws school funding from local property taxes.

Schools in poor and minority neighborhoods also experience far more instability in the teacher workforce. High poverty districts typically have no choice but to hire underqualified teachers because of high turnover and difficult working conditions. Inequities in access to qualified teachers are likely to play a significant role in the long-lasting achievement gap.

–Michelle J. Nealy

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