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Mobtown Beat

Learning Curve

Statistics Shows Poorest Communities Get Least-Trained Teachers

By Molly Rath | Posted 5/2/2001

Nearly all of Baltimore City's least-experienced teachers are concentrated at schools in poor communities--the same communities where schools are struggling most to meet state academic standards--and two-thirds teach in neighborhoods that are predominantly African-American.

At the same time, a mere handful of teachers who do not meet state certification requirements--a bachelor's degree plus 30 hours of classroom training and passing grades on two state-administered tests--work in schools in less-poverty-stricken neighborhoods where the per-capita income exceeds the city-set living wage.

The findings, based on data from the Baltimore City Public School System, the Maryland State Department of Education, and the U.S. Census Bureau, also appear to show a connection between teacher experience and a school's ability to meet state standards for test scores, prompting some community leaders to claim that redlining of teacher talent is underway in the 105,000-student system.

"While school performance is problematic in many parts of the city . . . the distribution of resources to address that performance is highly skewed in non-random ways that have a disparate, negative impact on low-income children and communities of color," according to a report to be released later this month by the Baltimore chapter of the community-activist group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).

The pattern is borne out at individual schools across the city. At East Baltimore's Rayner Browne Elementary School, for example, 11 of 24 teachers lack certification and only five have the equivalent of a master's or higher degree. Rayner Browne is located in a ZIP code that was 68 percent black and had a per-capita income of $7,966 a year as of the 1990 Census (2000 figures are not available), and where more than 75 percent of the 332 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. At Mount Washington Elementary in North Baltimore, in a 92 percent white community with a per-capita income of $26,331, only three of 23 teachers are uncertified and 12 have advanced degrees.

When the school data are grouped and viewed systemwide in terms of student performance, the impact of that unequal distribution becomes apparent. Schools with more uncertified teachers tend to have the lowest standardized-test scores, prompting ACORN to claim that the city system is imposing a form of institutional classism--and, by demographic extension, racism--that is hindering the city's ongoing education reforms in schools that need help the most.

"If you've got a large concentration of teachers who aren't seasoned, not to mention certified, and no resources to get them what they need to do their job, you get a whole school of untaught children," says Norma Washington, chairperson of the local ACORN chapter's board of directors and a parent of three public-school students.

"The federal definition for institutional racism has got to do with disparate impact and does not have to be intentional," says John Beam, executive director of the National Center for Schools and Communities at New York's Fordham University, which analyzed Baltimore school data for ACORN. "There are children underneath these numbers. The issue really has to do with equity. We're talking about how the pain gets distributed here. In a broader political sense, what happens to a community when its schools fail?"

Best known for its involvement on housing issues, ACORN launched its foray into education this past winter when housing-scam victims with whom the group was working complained about their children's schools. In December, it requested teacher-qualification information for the system's 182 schools under the state public-information act, and the school system responded with detailed breakdowns of teacher training and degrees. ACORN also obtained standardized-test scores for schools from the state and racial breakdowns by ZIP code from the Census Bureau and determined poverty levels based on the number of children receiving free or reduced-price lunch. Then it tapped Beam, an ACORN organizer in the 1970s, and his staff to crunch the numbers.

While the effort found that just shy of one-third of teachers systemwide are uncertified, the range of uncertified teachers at individual schools swings widely--from only a few uncertified teachers at a handful of schools to 63 schools where uncertified teachers make up at least one-third of the faculty. The Fordham center also found a strong correlation between uncertified teachers and student performance, a finding the ACORN report contends is further supported by Calverton Middle in West Baltimore, where 62 percent of teachers are uncertified. For the 1999-2000 school year, only 3 percent of Calverton students met the state standard for reading and 1 percent met the standard for math on the eighth-grade Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP), the state's standardized test.

"What the correlations say is that . . . in general, as your concentration of teachers who aren't certified goes up, you will see the number of students who don't do well on tests also going up," Beam says.

Using ACORN's numbers and additional Census data, City Paper conducted further analysis showing the distribution of teachers among communities in terms of per-capita income. Of 7,204 public-school teachers citywide, 2,221 (31 percent) fall short of the bachelor's-plus-30-hours standard. Forty-five percent of those training-deficient teachers--1,001 in all--work in schools in ZIP codes where the per-capita income is less than $10,712, what somebody would earn working full time at the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. Less than 6 percent of the uncertified teachers--127 total--teach in ZIP codes where per-capita income exceeds $16,702 a year, gross earnings for a full-time worker making Baltimore's living wage of $8.03 an hour. (The "living wage" is defined as the amount it would take to keep a family of four above the federal poverty line.)

The preponderance of inexperienced teachers in Baltimore's poor communities surprises few in local education circles. Urban systems nationwide show similar patterns, and the problem is compounded by a national teacher shortage that has systems scrambling to hire whoever they can, certified or not. A major contributor to the trend, most observers agree, is a high rate of teacher turnover in poor communities. Response to ACORN's linkage between uncertified teachers and test performance, however, ranges widely.

"Those students who need the expertise of experienced classroom practitioners . . . the most are the least likely to receive [it]," says Sharon Blake, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, who backs ACORN's findings. But Robert Embry, president of the Abell Foundation, which funds numerous education initiatives in Baltimore, calls ACORN's conclusion a stretch.

"There is no conclusive evidence that a uncertified teacher is better than a certified teacher," Embry says. "To assume that somebody is uncertified because they haven't taken [the requisite] courses is not the case. It's simple-minded beyond belief and it's a disservice to kids." He notes that the Baltimore teacher who received the National Science Foundation's 2000 Presidential Award for Excellence was uncertified when the system hired her.

"We can have a discussion about the discrepancies, but we can't have a discussion that the discrepancies are random," Beam counters. "There were statistical correlations between smoking cigarettes and getting lung cancer and other health problems a long time before they identified the mechanism of nicotine. We are looking at the same kind of issue. Statistically speaking, you can't say that 62 percent of teachers being uncertified causes kids to do poorly on the test. But you sure as hell know the correlation doesn't go in the other direction."

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