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Lesson One: Training Counts

September 01, 2002|LINDA DARLING-HAMMOND | Linda Darling-Hammond is Charles E. Ducommun professor of education at Stanford University and author of "The Right to Learn: A Blueprint for Creating Schools that Work."

STANFORD — As children across California strap on their backpacks and return to school, parents are crossing their fingers. They know intuitively what numerous studies have shown: The single most important influence on a child's achievement is the teacher. And in our state, these days, a child's chance of encountering a highly skilled, well-trained and caring teacher is a lot smaller than it should be.

In a 2001 poll, 87% of Californians identified well-qualified teachers in every classroom as the key to raising student achievement, far ahead of reforms like vouchers or testing. When asked what makes a good teacher, they listed knowledge about teaching and learning first, followed by knowledge of classroom management and subject matter.

But in California schools, more than 40,000 teachers--nearly 15% of the total--lack these basic qualifications. California has more emergency-credentialed teachers than in 25 other states combined. Last year, in addition to 37,000 teachers working on emergency permits, who had not met the state's standards for content knowledge or teaching skills, about 2,500 teachers were working on waivers without having passed even the state's basic skills test. Others are teaching on "intern" or "pre-intern" credentials while they finish their training. These teachers make up well over half the staff in some schools serving large concentrations of low-income and minority students. These are often the same schools that lack textbooks, supplies, adequate facilities and decent working conditions.

The reasons for this situation are now familiar. Proposition 13 led to reduced funding to schools while enrollments were growing. Salaries slipped and class sizes grew. Then, state law requiring smaller class sizes increased demand for teachers and led rich districts to raid poor districts for qualified teachers.

Less acknowledged is how much these disparities affect learning. At least four recent studies in California have found that, after controlling for student poverty and conditions like class size, the proportion of emergency-credentialed teachers in a school significantly lowers student achievement on state tests. As student promotion and graduation are now tied to these tests, requiring higher standards for kids without requiring any standards for their teachers threatens to leave more and more children behind.

No Child Left Behind--the federal law passed last year to improve education for underserved students--was intended to remedy this situation. It not only requires states to test every child every year, with rewards and sanctions attached to the scores, it also requires that states provide all children with "highly qualified" teachers by 2005-06. It defines these teachers as being fully certified by the state and having demonstrated competence in the subjects they teach. Funds are provided to states to help them implement plans to reach this goal.

Seems like a sensible idea. But rather than formulate a plan to get qualified teachers into all the state's classrooms, the State Board of Education instead tried to define away the problem by proposing to set the standards for "highly qualified teachers" at the level currently required of those who enter teaching on emergency permits. The U.S. Department of Education said it could not accept this definition, and California is back at the drawing board.

Although the situation looks daunting, it is fixable, as other states and districts have shown. The problems in staffing California schools are not caused by shortages of qualified individuals in the state or the nation. Nationally and in California, there are two to three times as many certified teachers in the population as there are in the schools. Many states in the Midwest and New England have teacher surpluses. Most of the "shortages" exist because people are unwilling to work in cities and poor rural districts that pay less than those in the suburbs and have larger classes and fewer resources.

Such disparities plague California. In 2001, beginning teacher salaries ranged from $23,000 to $45,000. After adjusting for cost of living, there was a 3-1 ratio between the starting salaries offered by Vallecito Union, a high-achieving Calaveras County district with no uncertified teachers, and Alum Rock Union, a low-performing San Jose district where 34% of all teachers are not fully certified. Economist Michael Pogodzinski found that California districts offering lower salaries than others in their county have more emergency hires.

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