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Policy Matters: Solving the Teacher Quality Dilemma

SOURCE: AP/Tina Fineberg

Jay Schwartz of West Caldwell, N.J., left, fills out a form during an orientation program for first time New York City public school teachers at Madison Square Garden in New York. 

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A new report released this month from the National Bureau of Economic Research on teacher quality in New York City has found that the city has moved a long way toward ensuring that all students have access to great teachers.

Data show that between 2000 and 2005, New York City significantly narrowed the gap in teacher qualification between high- and low-poverty schools, and that this change in the teaching force appears to have improved student achievement in the high-poverty schools without harming student achievement in low-poverty schools.

The difference in teachers’ math SAT scores in the lowest poverty schools compared to the highest poverty schools, for example, went from 43 points in 2000 to only 23 points in 2005. The difference in the percentage of uncertified teachers in low- versus high-poverty schools similarly decreased from 17.9 percent to 1.9 percent. Most of these improvements are the result of the district hiring more qualified teachers, rather than more qualified teachers transferring from other schools.

Researchers attribute these changes to a combination of state and district policies that changed the pool of teaching applicants to high-poverty schools in New York City. But federal policy also likely influenced these changes to state and district policy, creating a domino effect of good policies that improved the quality of new teachers in the district.

New York State, likely in response to the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s highly qualified teacher provisions, no longer allows uncertified teachers to teach students. No Child Left Behind, the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, requires that all teachers of core academic subjects meet a number of criteria to be designated highly qualified. Highly qualified teachers must hold a bachelor’s degree, be certified in their subject area, and have demonstrated their subject matter competency.

The district also created the Teaching Fellows program, to recruit and certify a new pool of talented people into teaching. The program, likely created in response to no longer being able to hire uncertified teachers, recruits mid-career professionals from other fields and then trains them to be high-quality teacher candidates for the district. The Fellows program will supply about a quarter of the city’s new teachers in the coming year.

New York City also expanded its use of Teach for America teachers, who will comprise about 10 percent of new hires. And as another measure to attract high-quality teachers, it significantly increased teachers’ starting salaries from $33,186 in 2000 to $39,000 in 2005.

This story provides three critical lessons for policymakers:

1. Federal, state, and district policies can help raise the quality of teachers in high-poverty schools. A number of studies have documented the fact that in many states and districts, poor and minority students are taught by teachers with weaker qualifications than those in other schools. It is clear from this example that this situation does not have to persist and can be affected by policy changes.

2. Improving teacher quality in high-poverty schools does not have to come at the expense of teacher quality in low-poverty schools. New York City improved teacher quality in its high-poverty schools solely by improving the quality of new recruits, and not from drawing better teachers from low-poverty schools.

3. Strategies such as increasing the prestige of the profession and improving compensation are just as important as improving working conditions. The researchers and authors of the National Bureau of Economic Research study attribute the improvements in teacher quality to recruitment and compensation policies. While teachers often say that working conditions matter more to them in choosing their positions than salary, it may be that salary, in combination with other factors, can have just as big of an effect on teachers’ decisions. One of the big draws of programs like the New York Teaching Fellows and Teach for America is their selectivity and prestige. Academically talented students are drawn to competitive programs that make them part of an elite group. The programs also draw teachers by motivating them by the moral imperative to improve education in high-poverty schools. It may also be that one of the most important working conditions is working with a staff of qualified, dedicated professionals. Perhaps when the quality of new recruits improved in high-poverty schools, other new recruits were attracted to those schools.

This may only be one success story in one district, but it is a large, complicated, urban district with all of the challenges that are faced by other urban districts. It is also likely that other urban districts with similar policies are experiencing similar improvements. And it is clearly a promising indication of what’s possible when federal, state, and district policies work in concert to improve education for disadvantaged students.

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Allison Preiss (economy, education, poverty)
202.478.6331 or apreiss@americanprogress.org

Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, health care, energy and environment, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention)
202.481.7141 or tcaiazza@americanprogress.org

Print: Chelsea Kiene (women's issues, Legal Progress, Half in Ten Education Fund)
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi (immigration, race and ethnicity)
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Rachel Rosen
202.483.2675 or rrosen@americanprogress.org

Radio: Chelsea Kiene
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org