WASHINGTON UPDATE

Experts identify teacher quality and preparation as areas for improvement.

African-American and Hispanic students are making no progress in reducing the math achievement gap with Whites, says a new Nation’s Report Card study that has spurred calls for action to improve teaching for at-risk youth.

In the new report, the federal government found that African- American students have a 26-point gap in math achievement with Whites at fourth grade and a 32-point gap with Whites at eighth grade. The gap between Hispanics and Whites is 21 points at fourth grade and 24 points at eighth grade. All four categories showed no change from the last analysis in 2007.

“This report should serve as a wake-up call to how much work lies ahead,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. “Many math classes in Schools with high concentrations of poor and minority students are taught by teachers who did not major in math or a math related field.” Noting that math achievement often best predicts future college success, experts also said the nation must step up action to provide more quality teachers for low-income students.

“To me, a major reason [for the stagnation] continues to be a lack of content knowledge and academic preparation for our teachers,” said David Driscoll, former education superintendent in Massachusetts and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, a 26-member panel of educators, lawmakers and business leaders that oversees the Nation’s Report Card.

At one time in Massachusetts, he said, math teachers could receive a teaching license even if they failed to answer a single math question correctly on the state teachers’ exam. At that time, it was only the candidate’s cumulative exam score that counted, rather than performance in his or her desired subject area.

Other leaders noted that low-income and minority students are more likely than others to be enrolled in lower-level math courses and taught by out-of-field teachers. But the challenge also is to Promote schoolwide reforms that, in turn, attract quality teachers.

“If we are to provide low-income students the best teachers, we must make their schools and classrooms desirable places to be,” said Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. School districts and schools of education also must attract more people of color, especially men, into education careers, he added.

The racial and ethnic data are based on 2009 scores on the “report card,” offi cially known as National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Data from recent NAEP reading and writing assessments are not yet available.

Since 1990, all ethnic groups have posted math increases on the NAEP exams. However, those gains have done little to narrow the gaps in achievement by race. The only exception is in fourth grade, where African-Americans have narrowed the gap slightly with Whites during the last 19 years.

The 2009 data also provide a cautionary note for observers of the education pipeline: Achievement of fourth-graders, regardless of ethnicity, showed no gain from the previous NAEP exam.

“This is the fi rst time we have never had score increases at grade four,” said Stuart Kerachsky, acting commissioner of the National Center on Education Statistics.

Overall for fourth grade, only 39 percent of all children are profi – cient in math. The rates for Latinos and African-Americans are 21 percent and 15 percent, respectively.

Despite the national trend, there were some pockets of growth.

In Minnesota, African-American fourth-graders scoring at profi cient or above increased from 16 to 25 percent. Connecticut, Missouri and Rhode Island increased overall achievement scores and narrowed gaps between Whites and African-Americans and Latinos.

Nonetheless, the overall picture remains gloomy. “It’s clear from the data at both grade levels that we still have a long way to go to effectively prepare all of our elementary and middle school students for the world that awaits them in high school and beyond,” said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. Several experts said the timing of the report is signifi cant, since states and localities can use new federal economic stimulus dollars to support better teacher education. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the government is offering new grants to promote teacher effectiveness. Specifi cally, they are to take steps so that more minority and low-income children are taught by qualifi ed, experienced teachers.

Such moves are long overdue, Fattah said.

“To build a pipeline of effective educators with diverse roots, we must instill in children the sense that teaching is a possible career path for everyone,” he said. “We must recruit students early in their college careers by providing assistance to those who face disproportionate challenges in funding their education.” One such program is the “Call Me Mister” initiative recently underway in Philadelphia in a partnership with historically Black Cheyney University. The initiative includes educational loan forgiveness and an academic support system for new teachers.

“Simply relying on the status quo,” Fattah said, “ignores the increasing diversity of our classrooms.” D