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Poor Neighborhoods, Untested Teachers

Many of D.C. Region's Low-Income Areas in a Cycle of Inexperience

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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.

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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."


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