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The ‘highly qualified’ gap

While states and school districts hotly debate the issue of whether student test scores should be used to evaluate teachers, the nation has been virtually ignoring a more basic question: whether those teachers are even qualified in the first place. Too many of them aren’t.

The No Child Left Behind Act mandated that all students be taught by “highly qualified” teachers. And although we disagree with many elements of that 2001 federal school reform act — its rigidity, its use of the wrong measurements to assess student progress — this provision always made more sense.

Among other things, a highly qualified teacher in the secondary schools is supposed to have expertise in the subject he or she teaches, whether that means having majored in the subject in college or having a credential to teach it. Ample research has found that students learn better when their teachers have such formal expertise. Yet a new report by the Education Trust, a nonprofit organization devoted to improving the educational lot of poor and minority students, shows that the problem is widespread and that little progress has been made.

According to the report, more than 15% of secondary school teachers were teaching outside their areas of expertise during the 2007-08 school year, a drop from about 17% four years earlier. California’s record is even less impressive. About 17.5% of its teachers weren’t qualified to teach their subjects in 2007-08, down from 17.7%.

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Some states did worse, with the number of unqualified teachers rising. Others did much better; in Pennsylvania, for instance, the number plummeted from 17% to 7.6%. The problem is especially acute in math and in high-poverty schools. A quarter of math teachers in such schools across the country are unqualified to teach the subject.

It’s not easy to fill all teaching jobs with qualified individuals. Math majors can usually find better-paying jobs in the private sector. Contracts negotiated with teachers unions make this harder still because schools cannot offer math teachers a higher salary than those whose jobs are easier to fill. This makes no sense. It defies reason to pay the same salary for a job that might have one or two qualified applicants and one that might have 500. Similarly, seniority rules should not keep school districts from assigning teachers to high-poverty schools.

If states, school administrators and unions will not reform this situation, the courts probably will. Consider the recent lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District, which successfully challenged union rules that resulted in high-poverty schools suffering layoffs in disproportionate numbers. Qualified teachers matter, and they are the law.


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