Poor Neighborhoods, Untested Teachers
Many of D.C. Region's Low-Income Areas in a Cycle of Inexperience

By Daniel de Vise and Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 27, 2009

Students in the region's poorest neighborhoods are nearly twice as likely to have a new or second-year teacher as those in the wealthiest, a Washington Post analysis has found. The pattern means some of the neediest students attend schools that double as teacher training grounds.

The analysis found 93 schools in the past academic year at which at least a third of the faculty were beginners, with less than two years in the profession. They were chiefly in the District and in Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties.

Experts say an effective teacher is key to raising academic achievement. Yet some disadvantaged students can spend years in classrooms led by untested recruits.

A teacher need not be experienced to be effective, and there are plenty of ineffective veterans. Maverick programs including Teach for America, which steer graduates from elite colleges into urban classrooms, have glamorized the first-year teacher by showing that youthful enthusiasm and smarts occasionally trump experience.

But studies show that inexperienced teachers tend to be less effective, especially in their first two years. That is when they learn to tame an unruly bunch into a class, prepare six hours of daily lessons and grade 25 homework assignments without working through dinner.

The concentration of new teachers in low-income communities is "remarkably consistent" across the nation, said James Wyckoff, a University of Virginia economist. Many teachers leave jobs in low-income communities after a year or two. Their flight leaves openings in struggling schools, which are filled by more new teachers. Federal law has tried to slow the cycle, with uneven results.

"We can't afford to take risks with our most vulnerable kids, yet that's exactly what we do," said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, an advocate for disadvantaged students.

Lisa Johnson, 35, has experienced the challenges facing a new teacher. She graduated from Yale, practiced law and had four children before her debut at Clinton Grove Elementary School in southern Prince George's in August. She quickly learned that life experience was no substitute for classroom experience.

"FIVE . . . FOUR . . . THREE . . . TWO . . . ONE."

Johnson repeated the countdown, loudly and slowly, over and over to quiet the class for a math lesson one winter afternoon. But most of her 18 first-graders were still chattering. A few boys were sliding from their chairs. One drew his jacket over his head, moaned, "Oh, my stomach" and slumped to the floor.

Bright and energetic, Johnson arrived in the classroom after five years in patent law, seeking to escape "firm life" for a better family life. She had taken a six-week course for career switchers. Immediately, she was buried in paperwork from a hodgepodge of overlapping efforts to fix the school.

"I didn't have materials that I needed," she recalled. "I didn't have teacher manuals. I couldn't find paper. Almost every day, I said I was going to quit."

But a midwinter conversation with the principal proved a turning point. Every new teacher goes through the same thing, the principal told her. "That made me feel like I could breathe," Johnson said.

Johnson realized that competing reform programs were often just renaming things she was already doing. She learned to grade assignments during her rounds in class, not at her desk after school. She started sending unruly students to a neighboring classroom to cool off, a trick she learned when a colleague sent one to hers.

Elusive Formula for 'Quality'

Experience is one of several factors related to teacher effectiveness, and there is broad agreement on its significance. Debate persists on other variables: Does it matter how teachers scored on the SAT or where they went to college? What about advanced degrees or national board certification or training in grade levels or subjects? The formula for a quality teacher is elusive.

But "almost every teacher, at least on average, gets better with a couple years of experience," said Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

A 1999-2000 Education Department survey pointed to an inequity in the teaching force. It found that 20 percent of teachers in low-income communities had three or fewer years of experience, compared with 15 percent in more-affluent areas. The 2002 No Child Left Behind law addressed the issue by requiring states to report the share of inexperienced teachers in schools serving poor or minority students and fix any disparities.

In a 2006 study, the D.C.-based Education Trust found that the provision was often weakly enforced. The District gave the matter scant attention in a report to the federal government, while Maryland and Virginia acknowledged "hard-to-staff schools" and outlined steps to lure more-experienced teachers to them.

Margaret Spellings, who was education secretary under President George W. Bush, said she strove to make students, not teachers, the focus of federal policy. The more important issue, she said, was "how the kids are doing, not how qualified the teachers are." Spellings said seniority preferences in contracts, which allow experienced teachers to choose assignments, magnify disparities because "teachers tend to pick cream-puff schools."

For its analysis, The Post obtained lists of teachers showing where they worked in 2007-08 and their years of experience. The lists were analyzed with data on the number of students per school whose families are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a measure of poverty.

In schools where fewer than 10 percent of students received meal subsidies, first- or second-year teachers made up 12 percent of the staff. In those where at least 75 percent received subsidies, 22 percent of teachers were in year one or two. The imbalance prevailed in elementary and secondary schools regionwide, and it could be seen more heavily within some school systems.

In Prince George's, Anne Arundel and Howard County schools, novice teachers tended to be clustered in less-affluent areas. But they were more evenly distributed in Montgomery County and in many Northern Virginia communities.

Comparisons within the D.C. school system are difficult because most students receive meal subsidies, but in general, inexperienced teachers were not more prevalent in the poorest neighborhoods. The analysis excluded D.C. charter schools, which account for about a third of the city's public school enrollment, because data for charter teachers were unavailable.

Schools across the region use mentoring and induction programs to keep and improve new teachers. Officials in Anne Arundel and Prince George's offer incentives to teach in some hard-to-staff or low-performing schools. D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has proposed teacher bonuses of as much as $20,000 a year.

Officials of D.C. and Prince George's schools, mindful of their reliance on a steady stream of recruits, are also trying to raise the caliber of novices through alternative models for recruiting and training. These initiatives seek to lure top talent from universities and from other fields into the classroom. But skeptics say the initiatives might raise false hopes that new teachers can save the lowest-performing schools. Alternative-route teachers account for only about 4 percent of the national teaching force, federal data show, although they make up a much larger share of new teachers.

From Chaos to Learning

Nick Fiorelli, 24, landed in D.C. public schools after spending part of a year rebuilding houses in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. He wanted to use his math education degree to help disadvantaged children, so he came to Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson. He's one of nine beginning teachers at a school born from the merger of two struggling schools.

"I can be very forgiving of the errors of youth," said the school's principal, Brian Betts. "If you love kids and believe they can learn with motivation and support, I can help you through the bumps of being a first-year teacher."

One January afternoon, his voice muffled from a lingering cold, Fiorelli delivered a lesson on nuclear energy in fits and starts to 16 sixth-graders.

"When a uranium nucleus splits," he began reading. But soon he stopped to confiscate a deck of UNO cards, a bag of potato chips, a PlayStation 2 game. It all went onto a pile of other contraband next to his overhead projector.

Someone needed to go to the restroom. Someone else wanted water. Fiorelli thanked those who sat quietly. To the others, he said: "You guys are not going to talk over me. We are going to learn. Do I need to call home to everybody's parents, like I did two days ago?"

Fiorelli is brimming with ideas to inspire students, like the X-Y axis taped to the floor of his room. In math, he groups students around the axis and builds lessons around the graph beneath their feet.

But he said it's tough to hold the line between learning and chaos, between friend and authority figure. Fiorelli suspects that he was too soft in the crucial first weeks.

"Veteran teachers say you need to come off really tough," he said. "I came off somewhat tough. Now I'm trying to make up for some lost time."

A square labeled "Behavior Warning" on the whiteboard filled with names as the science lesson wore on. In the end, the class managed to answer two questions about nuclear energy. One boy was in tears.

But Fiorelli seemed to be making strides. One spring day, he started class with a booming voice: "SEAT! . . . SIT! . . . BOOKS ON YOUR DESK!" After handing out pencils and paper, he delivered a lesson on the carbon cycle with few interruptions. Most names on the whiteboard had moved from the "Behavior Warning" box to the "Circle of Productivity."

Database editor Dan Keating contributed to this report.

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