It's the teachers, stupid

As Rod Paige, the secretary of Education, pointed out: "After spending $125 billion of Title I money over 25 years, we have virtually nothing to show for it."

In other words, despite a mammoth federal program to help disadvantaged kids, the achievement gap between poor and wealthier students hasn't budged. In fact, he adds that the more recent trend shows "the worst students getting worse."

In the 1960s, educators began uncovering the connection between poverty and low student performance. This led Washington to embark on a now 35-year-old program to improve the performance of disadvantaged kids.

At first, people thought it was the poverty itself that caused the low grades. In later years, researchers realized that poor students in predominantly middle-class or wealthy schools outperformed their peers in high-poverty schools. And thus, researchers began to realize that it was not only the kids that were different in poor schools, it was also the educational experience.

So the feds continued with Title I - now an $8 billion-a- year federal program providing funds to help poor schools. But as Mr. Paige so clearly articulates, Title I hasn't been able to shake that link between poverty and student achievement.

These federal dollars - amounting to as much as $200,000 annually for some poor schools - have been used for extras like tutoring and remedial instruction. And through it all, the schools themselves have become worse. The real problem is that the districts have allowed an uneven distribution of teachers. Poor schools are staffed by teachers with the least experience and the lowest qualifications.

The truth is that teachers are in short supply everywhere, and low-income schools get the last picks. In Los Angeles, for example, poor schools receive on average one to three applicants per teacher opening. In one wealthier neighborhood, the principal boasts 130 applicants per opening (and admits that openings rarely occur).

What does this mean for kids? Schools in wealthier parts of town can hire experienced teachers with a proven track record. Schools in poor neighborhoods hire rookies from the bottom of the applicant pool. Then - because a third of new teachers leave the profession each year and other new teachers transfer to better schools - poor schools serve as a revolving door for green teachers. In these schools, parents cannot develop lasting relationships with staff and there is little coherence in instructional programs.

While there are certainly exceptions, the bottom line is that the more poor children there are in a school, the less qualified the teaching staff.

And we now have data to prove that the quality of the teacher does matter. Studies from Tennessee, Boston, and Dallas show the devastating effects on students placed with a bad teacher for even one year.

So it's no wonder that we haven't seen progress after more than two decades of federal funding for pull-out programs, smaller class sizes, school reorganization, accountability, and other reforms.

The question is: What to do? Last week, President Bush proposed a budget with $2.6 billion (separate from Title I money) for states to recruit and prepare teachers. While increasing the number of qualified teachers is certainly helpful, it does little to tip the balance in the direction of poor schools, in part because of other obstacles embedded in the education system.

For instance, we know that teachers' union contracts are largely responsible for the uneven distribution of teachers. But while Philadelphia, Boston, Seattle, and other cities are chipping away at union control over teacher placement, much more is needed. Districts need to reclaim this important function in order to ensure that poor schools have access to more-experienced teachers.

Also guilty are district-budget policies that turn a blind eye to the appalling disparities in teacher costs between wealthy and poor schools. By ignoring the differences in the salaries of experienced teachers and newcomers, districts enable more experienced teachers to congregate in the most desirable schools.

But also proposed is a 20 percent increase in the Title I program. If applied with a provision for ensuring that Title I funding follows poor kids, and forcing districts to use real salaries in their budgeting, this money could be the key to improving the quality of poor schools.

Poor schools would see more of their Title I dollars, and could use their federal money for, say, financial incentives that let them attract and keep good teachers. This time the Title I money might make a real difference in the quality of teachers at these schools.

And finally, as the House and Senate hash out the details of the next version of Title I, keep in mind the causes of dismal performance among poor children. Remember that few school programs can work without good teachers at the core.

With ominous forecasts of teacher shortages, the federal government can't afford to wait. Without a concentrated and deliberate intervention, the impact on poor kids will only get worse. And next year we'll be realizing that after $8 billion more, we still haven't come close to fixing the problem.

Marguerite Roza is a senior fellow at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington's Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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