In Urban Classrooms, the Least Experienced Teach the Neediest Kids

In urban classrooms, novices learn on the job, and the children suffer.

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MaryEllen McGuire is the education policy program director at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Imagine for a moment that you are driving your child to the hospital. She has a high fever and is suffering from severe abdominal pain. It's unclear what's wrong but she is in definite need of medical attention.

Now imagine that the only doctor on call is a recently graduated medical student. It's her first day on the job and there is no experienced physician or surgeon available for consultation. Are you satisfied with this level of care for your child? I wouldn't be. I'd want to benefit from the knowledge of a more experienced physician. Wouldn't you?

Unfortunately, a similar scenario is playing out in America's urban classrooms with shocking regularity. Teachers with the least experience are educating the most disadvantaged students in the highest poverty, most challenging schools. Low-income kids are being "triaged" not by experienced teachers, but by those with fewer than three years of teaching to go on.

Does it matter? Absolutely. According to the research, teacher experience is at least a partial predictor of success in the classroom and, at present, one of the only approximations for teacher quality widely available. Experienced teachers tend to have better classroom management skills and a stronger command of curricular materials. Novice teachers on the other hand struggle during their initial years in any classroom.

Why are our least experienced professionals consistently being handed the most challenging teaching assignments? Because of the way seniority is rewarded in teacher contracts. More often that not, union contracts dictate that veteran teachers get first dibs on available positions within a school system. As a result, when given the chance, teachers often choose to transfer to more desirable, low-poverty schools. As a result of these transfers, students with the greatest educational need are time and time again taught by the least experienced teachers.

How bad is the problem? According to the National Center for Education Statistics, schools with the most low-income and minority students employ almost twice the proportion of teachers with fewer than three years of experience as higher-income and low-minority schools.

Disparities also exist in the distribution of teachers who are highly qualified in their subject areas as defined by No Child Left Behind. According to an Ohio study, one of every eight teachers in schools within the highest poverty and minority levels was not highly qualified, compared with only one of every 50 teachers in the lowest-poverty schools, and one of every 67 teachers in the lowest-minority schools.

Ultimately, disparities in teacher experience and credentials put low-income students at a disadvantage and perpetuate the achievement gap.

You may question whether policymakers are wholly insensitive to these inequities. They are not. When the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was originally passed in 1965, lawmakers inserted specific provisions to ensure that low-income students were provided services "comparable" to those provided to their more wealthy peers. These services included the equitable distribution of teachers.

Unfortunately, language subsequently inserted into law has rendered the provision almost meaningless. Since initial passage, lawmakers have decided to exempt teacher seniority from figuring into school comparability calculations. This has allowed school districts across America to hide the fact—under cover of federal law—that their poorest students in their poorest schools are being taught by their least experienced, least expensive teachers. After all, one of the primary determinants of a teacher's salary is years of experience. If this experience is not figured into comparability calculations, a teacher of 10 years and a teacher of 10 days can appear to have the same qualifications. Multiply this several times over and to compliance officers, the schools filled with experienced teachers look "comparable" to those filled with novices.