Judy Rundle is a statistical anomaly, and also a much-loved kindergarten teacher at Randolph Elementary School in Arlington County.
For nearly 40 years, in the sort of low-income neighborhood school where experienced, successful teachers are often rare, she has won awards and helped wave after wave of chattering 5-year-olds find joy in learning, even in a language many of their parents don't speak fluently.
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As a new school year begins, the relative absence of such teachers in America's poorest schools is becoming one of the most important educational issues. Several new studies note that the poorest children are hurt by having the least experienced, and often the least effective, instructors.
A study by Richard M. Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania shows that the problem is not so much that low-income schools cannot attract enough experienced teachers, but that they lose the ones they have. Twenty percent of teachers at high-poverty schools left teaching or moved to other schools in 1999, compared with 12.9 percent in low-poverty schools, Ingersoll said.
"Once teachers gain a few years of seniority, they bolt from these urban schools faster than the speed of sound," said Peter D. Ford III, a mathematics teacher who has mostly low-income students at the Foshay Learning Center in South Central Los Angeles.
Because the new federal No Child Left Behind Act demands that every classroom have a "highly qualified" teacher by 2006, this is a critical problem, with many suggested solutions but little research to back them up.
Many education experts say teachers must be paid more and supported by good administrators.
"Our last four presidents have largely succeeded in raising the caliber of frontline soldiers -- professionalizing the military -- by boosting pay, creating new training opportunities and improving working conditions," said Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. "But when it comes to professionalizing the teaching force, Mr. Bush has simply told the states that they must magically figure out a way to upgrade teacher quality with no new resources."
Andrew J. Rotherham, a former Clinton White House adviser and director of the 21st Century Schools Project at the Washington-based Progressive Policy Institute, said most teachers wouldn't choose to work in a difficult school in the District, for example, if they could get a more comfortable position in Fairfax or Montgomery counties. "That's a fact of life," he said, "that the teachers' unions may try to wish away when they fight efforts to use differential pay -- to break away from the single-salary scale based on experience and degrees only -- but it is an economic reality."
Paul Houston, executive director of the Arlington-based American Association of School Administrators, which has produced one of the new studies on the subject, said, "If we want to attract high-quality teachers to struggling schools, we need to reward teachers who agree to take on tough assignments."
The teacher unions have begun to accept the idea of higher pay for teachers in high-poverty schools, and several studies show that such incentives attract more applicants, said Cynthia Prince, issues analysis director of Houston's association.
The discussion grows vague, however, when policymakers ask researchers how to tell a good teacher from a bad one, particularly when hiring someone new.
"From my experience teaching in an inner-city school in South Central Los Angeles, 'better teachers' would have meant teachers who didn't hit children, who didn't sleep while the students watched their daily video, who could control a classroom and who didn't pass illiterate students to the next grade," said Kelly L. Amis, director of education programs for Fight for Children, a foundation that helps low-income children in the District.
But in these schools, Amis said, there's a great need for "teachers who have high literacy skills themselves and who will hold all students to high academic standards."
"Experience is important, but only to the extent that a teacher actually becomes a better teacher with experience," said Bridget Curran, senior policy analyst at the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices. "There are certainly plenty of examples of really good young teachers and really bad experienced teachers."
Megan Farnsworth, an education specialist at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, said that when she was an elementary school curriculum coordinator in Burbank, Calif., "I analyzed our teachers' test results. The teachers that had the most experience had the lowest scores. Pretty sad, considering how much a couple of them were getting paid."
The latest research indicates that the only sound measure of a good teacher is the achievement gains his or her students have attained.
Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford University's Hoover Institution who studies student achievement, said an analysis of Texas test scores indicates that a good teacher can close the learning gap between poor and non-poor students in five years. But teacher quality, he said, "is not closely related to master's degrees, experience or credentials in general." Experience is only an indicator for teachers with less than three years of classroom time; those rookies, the research shows, are less effective.
"We don't yet know a lot about the characteristics of the teachers who are so much more effective than their peers," said Kati Haycock, director of the Washington-based Education Trust, which encourages research on such issues.
The experts agree that great teachers such as Rundle love teaching. As Randolph's proportion of pupils from immigrant families grew, Rundle said, "I found it a great challenge to find new and better ways to meet the needs of our student population."
She said she has had a string of good principals and unusual support from such programs as George Mason University's professional development school, which sends several yearlong interns to Randolph. But her principal, Kathie Panfil, and her colleagues say it is Rundle's attitude that makes the difference.
"I just love teaching, and I work with every child at their level to help them achieve the skills and attitude they need to succeed in kindergarten," Rundle said. "I try to give them the best first year of public school they can get."