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Underprivileged kids, underqualified teachers

Yes, parents matter, but so do teachers
11:01 PM CDT on Thursday, August 14, 2003

By RUBEN NAVARRETTE / The Dallas Morning News

Ask any teacher why poor and minority students struggle with low test scores and high dropout rates, and he'll tell you: It's the parents.

That's how it was put to me several years ago by a young man completing his teacher's credential at a college in Central California. The demographics of the area were such that he was sure he'd wind up in a district with lots of minority students. What did I expect him to do, he asked, when those he was slated to teach would most likely come from homes where education wasn't a priority?

And that's how it was explained to me recently when, after writing a column supporting private school vouchers, I was besieged with angry e-mails from teachers. One by one, they lectured me on how their hands were tied and how only parents had the power to decide a child's future.

Time and again, when asked why Latino and African-American students struggle, teachers fall back on the same old excuse: It's the parents.

Now, a comprehensive survey of thousands of Texas public schools by The Dallas Morning News offers a very different answer: It just might be the teachers.

After years of parents receiving most of the blame, tough questions finally are being asked about the quality of teachers to which poor and minority students most often are exposed.

According to the survey, schools with significant numbers of poor and minority students, or large populations of students with limited English proficiency, were the least likely to have highly qualified, experienced teachers who are certified in the subject matter they teach. Schools that were affluent, largely white or had mostly English speakers were much more likely to have veteran and certified teachers.

More than 7,000 schools in Texas were rated based on how many of their teachers were certified and how long they had been in the classroom. Each school was assigned a "Teacher Preparation Index" by combining the percentage of teachers who are certified, the percentage certified and teaching in their specialty, and the percentage with at least two years' experience. The scale was from 1 to 10.

Schools whose student body was more than 90 percent white had a rating of 6.3. For schools that were largely Latino, the average was 4.6. For those mostly black, the figure was 3.4.

In schools where fewer than 10 percent of the students were from economically disadvantaged families, the Teacher Preparation Index was 6.2. But in those where more than 90 percent of the students were disadvantaged, the rating was 4.3.

In schools where more than 50 percent of the students were proficient in English, the rating was 5.7. But where less than half of the students were proficient, it was only 3.6.

The survey should shock and concern us all. America's public schools aren't perfect. But they should always strive toward a simple ideal – that students ought not be penalized because of things like their skin color, how much money their parents make or the languages they speak.

The notion that poor and minority students could be stuck with less experienced, and arguably less qualified, teachers is deeply offensive. Not to mention foolish preparation for a future in which the overall U.S. population will be increasingly nonwhite and non-English-speaking.

Of course, there's a discussion worth having about what "qualified" means and whether certified teachers are somehow more deserving of that label than those who lack certification or even simply lack it in the subjects they teach. There's a good argument to be made that in many states, certification requirements are too rigid. The result is that professionals who spend a lifetime honing their craft in other fields are too often shut out from making what could be a meaningful contribution to the education of young people.

As someone who has been in the classroom and seen what works and what doesn't, I'm all for experimentation. Schools need to constantly search out new ways to reach and teach students. The problem comes when the educational system seems more willing to experiment with some kids than with others.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. His e-mail address is rnavarrette@dallasnews.com.

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