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A Question of Quality: Examining the roots of uneven instruction quality in our schools

Any consumer of public education knows that teacher quality can be uneven. But why does the gap exist? And how do you beat the luck of the draw?

Sunday, February 02, 2003

By Jane Elizabeth, Post-Gazette Education Writer

Each year on the brink of autumn, students -- and their parents -- wonder about which teachers they'll get.

Will the math teacher be the good one or the mean one? Will the English teacher be the one who's happy to talk with parents, or the one who's biding time until retirement and can't be bothered?

Greg Geibel, an award-winning English teacher at North Allegheny High School, says the new federal designation for a "highly qualified" teacher is sort of like a "pre-owned certified car," which essentially means "it has an engine, it has wheels, it can run." (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

More in today's report

Who's teaching the teachers?

Join a Town Meeting on teacher quality

About the series

The Series

Examining the roots of uneven instruction quality in our schools

Day Two:
A question of quality: Are teacher entrance tests tough enough?

Day Three:
Do schools hire the best teachers? Probably not

Day Four:
Minority teachers are a missing ingredient

Day Five:
Paperwork, legal threats deter firing bad teachers

Any consumer of public education knows that teacher quality can be uneven. But why does the gap exist? And how do you end the luck of the draw in the classroom?

It might seem that the answer will come from the new No Child Left Behind federal education law. Under that law, all teachers must be "highly qualified" by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

But these standards are so minimal that most teachers in Pennsylvania already meet them: They must hold a college degree, pass a test in the subject area they teach and hold a valid state certificate.

The best teachers scoff at that definition of quality.

Greg Geibel, a North Allegheny High School teacher who was named one of Western Pennsylvania's top teachers in 2001, compared the designation to a "pre-owned certified car," which essentially means "it has an engine, it has wheels, it can run."

Like many educators, he doesn't believe that teacher quality can be defined by any sort of law or truly gauged by any type of test.

But researchers who've studied the characteristics of good teachers say they can show a direct connection between the quality of the teacher and the performance of the student.

A recent Tennessee study found that students who had good teachers three years in a row scored significantly higher on state tests than students with three years of poor-quality teachers.

A study by Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond concluded that the best predictor of student performance on national tests was the percentage of high-quality teachers they had -- teachers who had majored in the subjects they taught and were properly certified.

And students who spend even one year with a bad teacher can score more than a grade level lower than students who had a good teacher, according to a University of Rochester study.

Suffering the odds

Some experts feel that the nation's teaching corps is uneven at best.

Lagging Charters

If your child is one of 28,500 students who attend a Pennsylvania charter school, chances are greater that the child is being taught by an unqualified teacher.

The irony is that charter schools were established largely because reformers claimed that regular public schools had not done a good enough job of educating students. Charter schools are funded by taxpayer money but are exempt from many of the regulations placed on public school districts.

The reformers' rhetoric may ring hollow when it comes to teacher qualifications.

While about 45 percent of regular public school teachers had at least some education beyond a bachelor's degree, fewer than 30 percent of charter school teachers were in that category, according to a study conducted by Western Michigan University.

Close to 30 percent of the state's charter school teachers were not certified to teach, according to the study. Another 4.3 percent held certificates, but not from the state of Pennsylvania. And 11.5 percent of the certified teachers weren't certified to teach the subject they were teaching.

By comparison, about 4.4 percent of regular public school teachers in the state are improperly certified; half of those are in Philadelphia.

Some argue that certification is overrated as a measure of how good a teacher is, but the ongoing Western Michigan study also shows that while charter students have made some gains in achievement, their test scores continue to lag behind those of students in regular public schools.


"Many parents now don't expect good teaching every time, or even from time to time," said California-based researcher Leon Lessinger, who was assistant education secretary under presidents Johnson and Nixon. "From experience, they know, if only intuitively, that luck or chance can rule in the quality of classroom teaching."

In Pennsylvania, recently approved teacher quality controls could help improve those odds. But some of the new rules -- including more rigorous requirements to get into education schools and to graduate -- apply only to new teachers.

The teaching staff in half of Pennsylvania's 501 school districts has been on the job an average of 15 years or more, and most older teachers never had to meet any particularly stringent standards.

A typical scenario: Patsy Tallarico, a former New Kensington teacher who graduated from Edinboro College in 1966, didn't have to take a test to get his teaching certificate and did half of his 12-week "student teaching" without a supervisor.

Then he was handed a lifetime teaching license.

"I could have gone from '66 to 2000 without doing another thing," said Tallarico, now president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

Even though teacher requirements appear to have gotten tougher in recent years, there are loopholes you could drive a school bus through. For instance, teachers who have flunked required tests can take them again and again until they pass -- and even if they don't pass, they still can teach under so-called "emergency certificates" for up to two years.

And some teachers in public charter schools are allowed by law to be uncertified.

President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education reform act is supposed to close some loopholes and improve the quality of both new and older teachers.

Under the law, the federal government plans to distribute $2.85 billion this year to state education departments nationwide to improve teacher quality. Pennsylvania will get $112.5 million of that money to be used for teacher training and evaluation, which amounts to about $1,000 a teacher.

The PDAP flap

Evaluating teachers, however, can be an onerous political struggle, as Pennsylvania's experience with the Professional Development Assistance Program, or PDAP tests, has demonstrated.

Teachers unions continue to criticize the $1.5 million-a-year teacher testing program started by former Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican; and Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell has said he may scrap the test.

Union officials said the tests were poorly administered and didn't reliably measure how well teachers perform in the classroom.

But it's also true that many teachers who took PDAP's basic math and reading tests scored poorly, raising the question of whether some of the unions' concern was simply that the test results were embarrassing.

Nevertheless, teachers didn't have to worry about being punished for poor scores.

Under the testing rules, even if a teacher flunked every question on the exam, principals couldn't use those scores to fire employees or force them to get help. That's because principals don't get individual teacher's scores, which aren't supposed to be given to anyone but the teachers themselves.

However, tests aren't the only way to measure a teacher's performance -- there are observations and evaluations by school administrators or fellow teachers.

But while teachers in Pennsylvania are supposed to be evaluated regularly, when a teacher receives tenure -- after three years on the job -- evaluations can become far less stringent. Overwhelmed administrators may barely have time to fill out the evaluation forms, much less closely observe dozens of teachers in their classrooms.

Even though he said he makes the time to do proper evaluations, Richard Sternberg, principal at Grandview Elementary School in Pittsburgh and president of the Pittsburgh Administrators Association, acknowledged that school principals "do have to do a lot of things," and so "something will get sacrificed."

Principals often use the squeaky-wheel theory, he said. If there are complaints about certain teachers, they may get a closer observation.

And as for principals who think they don't have time for thorough evaluations: "There's always time. . . . You have to prioritize what's important," Sternberg said.

Nepotism dangers

The prevalence of nepotism or favoritism in school district hiring also can lower the chances of honest teacher evaluations. If you were a principal, would you want to give a poor evaluation to a school board member's daughter?

Upcoming in the series

Teachers take exams, too. How are Pennsylvania's scores, and what do those tests measure?

Is your district hiring the best teacher candidates available? Many experts doubt it.

Even in schools with large numbers of black children, there are few black teachers. Why isn't the teaching force in Western Pennsylvania more diverse?

Are you frustrated with your child's teachers? There are ways to help ensure the quality of your district's teachers.


Sometimes, problem teachers stick around for years because no one wants to criticize them -- at least not openly.

Teachers generally won't complain about a low-quality colleague to an administrator. And parents typically are extremely reluctant to comment on the record about bad teachers, fearing backlash against their children -- even though local teachers who were interviewed said they wouldn't punish a child for complaints made by their parents.

Typical is one parent's lament about a teacher in a Pittsburgh high school.

"She sits in the classroom and plays computer games all day long," said the parent, who would not allow her name to be used because "there would be retribution against my child," who is an honor student.

"The teacher tells the children, 'I don't care if you come to my class. Why don't you just cut the class; you're in my way anyway. You bother me.' "

No one will listen to complaints about the teacher, the parent said, because "the school is afraid to do anything because she has tenure."

Even when parents express satisfaction with their children's teachers, their comments often are tinged with relief.

"I've been lucky," said Nancy Sample, a West Jefferson Hills parent.

"We've been fortunate," said Dave Gadd, whose children have attended schools in North Carolina, Virginia and in Pittsburgh.

"It's just the luck of the draw," said Roberta Horwitz, a Pittsburgh parent, explaining how a friend's son was placed in a favored teacher's math class.

Luck isn't good enough, maintains Lessinger, who said schools must operate as "high-reliability organizations."

That's business-management jargon for services that are performed under quickly moving, high-stress conditions -- such as emergency medicine or air traffic control. Highly skilled employees are needed for those jobs or the results can be disastrous. Many experts say the same is true for education.

One way to ensure that reliability, experts say, is to insist that teachers be trained in the subject matter they're teaching.

But the latest figures from the National Center for Education Statistics show that nationwide, more than half the teaching force didn't have a major or a certificate in the area they were teaching -- from 57 percent in science courses to 71 percent in history courses.

In Pennsylvania, 22 percent of high school teachers didn't even have a minor in the field they were teaching, according to a study done by University of Pennsylvania Professor Richard M. Ingersoll. And in higher-poverty school districts, that number jumps to 34 percent.

Nationwide, poor children are about twice as likely to get inexperienced teachers, uncertified teachers or teachers who scored poorly on teaching exams, according to Ingersoll's study, conducted for the Washington-based Education Trust.

The problem of improperly certified teachers -- or teachers who just aren't sufficiently educated -- has been a popular research topic for academics, and a profusion of national organizations has attacked the issue from all sides.

Louis V. Gerstner Jr., the retired chairman of IBM, announced just last month that he has assembled a panel of education experts, high-powered politicians and business owners to study teacher quality for 14 months.

Not everyone was impressed. "We don't need this problem studied again," said Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia University. "We need action."

More often than not, these reports and statistics aren't seen by some very important consumers -- parents.

And when they are, the studies can be contradictory and confusing, especially to frustrated parents who are usually more concerned about their child's next teacher than any academic review of teacher quality.

State and federal officials continue to wrestle with how to improve teaching. Lessinger warns that improvements need to be made quickly, however, before another generation of students goes through classrooms where mediocre teaching is ignored.

The classroom, he said, "is not like a gambling casino. It's not the place for a game of chance."

Jane Elizabeth can be reached at jelizabeth@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.

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