The disparity among the quality of our schools is heartbreaking. Some of this is a result of complex socioeconomic issues. However, teachers cannot teach what they do not know, and therefore, poorer American students are receiving instruction from teachers who are less effective teachers.
The Education Trust just released a report that analyzed prevalence of out of field teaching in US middle and high school classes based on the most recent US department of Education School and Staffing survey data (2003-2004). Out of field teachers were defined as teacher’s lacking certification or an academic major in the subject they are teaching. Not surprisingly, out of field teaching was much more common in high poverty schools , i.e. schools where 75% of students receiving reduced or free lunch. Twenty-seven percent of the core courses in these high poverty schools are taught by out of field teachers while that rate is fourteen percent in low poverty schools (15% or fewer students receiving free lunch). Mathematics is particularly problematic with 41% of math courses in high poverty schools being taught by teachers without state certification or an academic major in math or a math related subject like engineering, physics or math education.
American schools are not broken, just fractured. While there are many factors that lead to the relatively low ranking of American students in most international comparisons (e.g. in mathematics the US ranked 24th of 29 countries that participated in the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment), it is clear that American students from our wealthiest schools are quite competitive as indicated by their high achievements at the university level. We need to provide economic incentives for the best teachers to take on the challenges of our inner city schools and we need to provide teachers who may lack content knowledge with the opportunity to gain content knowledge in the subjects that they are teaching. Recruitment bonuses for teachers at underresourced schools and high quality teacher professional development courses can help mend this fractured system.