LARGE numbers of children, especially low-income African-Americans and Latinos, are being taught critical core courses - English, math, science, and social studies - by teachers who have neither an academic major nor a teaching certificate in the subjects they teach. And states have been glossing over the problem while the U.S. Department of Education looked the other way.
According to the advocacy group Education Trust, four in 10 middle and high school math classes in the nation's poorest schools are taught by teachers who aren't trained to teach those classes. That's more than twice the rate in schools with the fewest low-income students. The problem is particularly acute in the middle grades where, nationally, 40 percent of all core courses are taught by an out-of-field teacher.
Math instruction is especially troublesome in schools with a high percentage of African-American or Hispanic students, the advocacy group said. In those schools, nearly one-third of math classes are taught by unqualified instructors, again double the rate of schools with fewer minority students.
But that's only part of the story. Many states, Ohio included, seem to be overstating the number of "highly qualified" teachers they have teaching core courses, which has the effect of hiding the problem. Under No Child Left Behind, states were given leeway in defining "highly qualified," with the result that in most states nearly every teacher is defined that way in order to comply with the federal statute. And, according to Education Trust, federal officials essentially closed their eyes to the practice.
But when the group examined teacher-reported data on the number of teachers certified in the subjects they taught, a very different picture was painted. Ohio, for example, reported that in 2003-04, 93 percent of core classes were taught by "highly qualified" teachers. Teachers, however, indicated that more than one-third of the courses they taught were outside their training and certification. And Ohio is by no means alone. In 17 states, there was at least a 20 point difference between the percentage of educators reported as "highly trained" and the percentage of classes being taught out-of-field.
Teachers, most of whom should be applauded for attempting to take on courses outside their expertise, are not at fault. The problem is a myopic fixation on the testing aspect of the No Child law, which largely ignores the single most critical factor in student success: placing highly trained teachers in the classrooms for which they were trained. Some states, recognizing that, have begun mentoring new teachers, overhauling their teacher-training programs, or offering financial incentives to attract the best teachers to problem subjects and schools.
These efforts, while laudable, don't excuse the disservice being done to poor and minority students by school districts and state education departments that aren't completely honest about the quality of classroom instruction. If students fudged their work like this, they'd be sent to the principal's office.