In Maryland, a third of public school classes are taught by teachers who are not "highly qualified," according to the state Department of Education. That designation means that a third of Maryland's public school teachers have not demonstrated knowledge of the subjects they teach.
This is a disconcerting statistic, but the distribution of these teachers in the schools is what is eye-popping. In public schools with the lowest percentage of poor children, 22 percent of classes are taught by teachers who are not highly qualified to teach a particular class; in schools with the highest percentage of poor children, the figure is 53 percent.
In other words, children who go to schools that have a large number of poor students have less than an even chance of getting teachers who have proven that they know what they're talking about. And in some schools, children have still less chance than that. In some Prince George's County and Baltimore City schools, for example, 60 to 75 percent of classes are taught by teachers who the state says fall short of being highly qualified.
This fact demonstrates with tremendous clarity something long known but rarely acknowledged: Most states and school systems give short shrift to poor children.
The state Department of Education should be commended for being so straightforward in its definitions about teacher qualifications and in its reporting. Although all states are required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act to report these data, many have delayed reporting or have made so many changes in the definition of what makes a teacher highly qualified that it's almost impossible to know what is going on.
Maryland has pretty much stuck to its guns in defining a "highly qualified" teacher as either having majored or minored in the subject that he or she is teaching or having passed a test of knowledge in the field. By the state's unflinching reporting of these figures, Marylanders now know that poor children in public schools get highly qualified teachers much less often than other children do.
Not all schools in Maryland follow the pattern. At Rock Hall Elementary School in Kent County on the Eastern Shore, 62 percent of the children meet the income qualifications for receiving federal lunch subsidies, 93 percent of the classes have highly qualified teachers and 95 percent of the school's students meet state reading standards. Rock Hall's achievement data are comparable to those of the wealthiest schools in Maryland.
Also impressive is Viers Mill Elementary in Silver Spring. Ninety-seven percent of classes there are taught by highly qualified teachers, and 88 percent of the school's third-graders meet state math standards -- even though most are poor and either Hispanic or African American.
Lots of things are important in educating children -- not just the formal qualifications of the teacher. But at Rock Hall and Viers Mill, poor children and children of color prove what they can do if given excellent instruction. The more usual pattern, however, is demonstrated by Highland View Elementary in Silver Spring. Its student population is similar to the student population at Viers Mill, but only 55 percent of its classes are taught by teachers who are highly qualified, and more than half of its students don't meet state math or reading standards.
This pattern is disgraceful. But for it to change, parents must become part of the conversation. Many parents don't know that they have the legal right to know about the credentials of their children's teachers. They will find that good teachers are happy to explain their academic backgrounds and work experience; teachers who have not yet earned the "highly qualified" status should be able to tell parents what they are doing to change that. Parents also should work with principals to make schools welcoming and supportive places where highly qualified teachers will want to come and stay.
But parents can't solve the problem of poor teacher quality on their own. It is the responsibility of all of us -- teachers, teachers' union leaders, principals, superintendents, school boards, state legislators and citizens -- to ensure that all children, rich and poor, have effective, knowledgeable teachers.
-- Karin Chenoweth
is a senior writer at Achievement Alliance, an organization that works to improve academic achievement, and former author of the Homeroom column that appeared in The Post's Montgomery and Prince George's Extra sections.