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Brookings Papers on Education Policy 2004 (2004) 248-259

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[Article by Kati Haycock]

Comment by Hamilton Lankford

Kati Haycock has written an informative paper that will prove useful to researchers, policy analysts, and practitioners. The paper surveys a wide range of research to document how low-income and minority students are most often taught by the least qualified teachers; it discusses research findings regarding the relationship between teacher qualifications and quality and student outcomes; it examines recent efforts to attract and retain better teachers in difficult-to-staff schools; and it considers policy elements that she believes would characterize a more promising alternative.

The body of research documenting disparities in the distribution of teachers within particular states, metropolitan areas, and districts has greatly expanded in recent years. Readers will find Haycock's paper valuable in terms of its overview of the literature, including references and the paper's synthesis of findings. These findings strongly support Haycock's observation that "students who are most dependent upon their teachers for academic learning are systematically assigned to teachers with the weakest knowledge and skills." Even though it is generally understood that such qualitative differences exist, the synthesis of research findings makes clear that these differences are large in magnitude as well as consistent across both a wide range of measures and schools in many states.

Haycock focuses on the relationship between teacher attributes and the race and poverty status of students. However, similar patterns hold when students and schools are instead grouped by the academic performance of students. For example, grouping elementary schools in New York based on fourth-grade students' performance on the statewide English language arts (ELA) exam, one finds large systematic differences in the qualifications of teachers. In the quartile of schools having more than 20 percent of students failing all sections of the ELA exam, 14 percent of teachers had no prior teaching experience, 22 percent were not certified in any assignment, and 35 percent of the teachers taking the liberal arts teacher certification exam failed on their first attempt. This starkly contrasts with the attributes of teachers in the quartile of schools not having any students failing all sections of the ELA exam. In these schools, 6 percent of teachers had no prior teaching experience, 3 percent were not certified in any assignment, and 9 percent failed the certification exam. [End Page 248]

It is important to be clear whether the central issue is one of teacher adequacy or the inequity associated with relative differences in the qualifications of teachers. When considering the typical attributes of those teaching minority, poor, or low-performing students, a natural tendency exists to compare these attributes with the qualifications of those individuals teaching other, often more advantaged, students—as I did above and as Haycock does in her paper. Even though such comparisons may be important in understanding the corresponding differences in educational outcomes and issues regarding educational equity more generally, focusing on differences in qualifications can distract from what I view as the most pressing problem: Those students failing to achieve even minimum educational standards far too often are taught by individuals whose qualifications and skills are woefully inadequate, even though these students typically are most dependent upon their teachers for academic learning. With issues of standards and adequacy receiving increased attention in recent years, a focus on the adequacy of teachers is likely to yield broader public support for reform than would analyses focusing on relative differences in the qualifications of teachers.

Haycock explains the distribution of teachers as resulting from the preferences of teachers and school officials; differences across schools and districts in their capacities and constraints, especially their collective bargaining agreements; differences in transfers and quits; and within-school differences. While these factors are all pertinent to the observable outcomes, I find a somewhat different organizing framework useful. First, the supply of teachers is affected by a range of factors that make teaching more or less attractive, both in general and in particular schools and districts. Here teacher preferences are pertinent, as Haycock discusses. Second, on the demand side, various factors...


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pp. 248-259
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Archived 2007
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