WASHINGTON -- Nearly a decade after the No Child Left Behind law was enacted, studies have shown little progress in reducing the number of teachers of low-income students who are inexperienced or teaching classes outside their subject areas.
The law, which was supposed to stop school districts from putting less qualified teachers in classrooms with low-income students, is best known to the public for requiring more standardized testing. According to studies, considerable progress has been made in reducing the number of uncertified teachers in all schools.
"Overall, the news is not terribly optimistic," says Sarah Almy, director of teacher quality at The Education Trust in Washington, D.C., which advocates for poor and minority students. "There was the effort and the right intent, but the way it's played out, I would not say it has made much difference to the kids in question."
A 2009 report by the National Council on Teacher Quality concluded that "few states have shown much interest in telling their (school) districts they need to assign teachers differently, despite language in No Child Left Behind designed to rectify inequities."
Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary of education for civil rights, says No Child Left Behind meant "for the first time ever, people were talking about the inequitable distribution of teachers in new ways." She cites statistical and anecdotal evidence from some states and districts indicating that teacher assignment has become more equitable in those places.
In 2006, states were required to submit "teacher equity" plans to the U.S. Department of Education. By the deadline, Almy says, only Nevada, Ohio and Tennessee filed full plans for monitoring fairness of teacher assignments. She also praises district-level initiatives in Las Vegas and Charlotte, N.C., to address the imbalance.
Because of the change of administrations in Washington, why the Department of Education has not succeeded in making states do more to disperse good teachers is a sensitive issue. The teacher equity plans were reviewed under President George W. Bush, who signed the education law in January 2002.
Ali, an appointee of President Barack Obama, says some states submitted plans "so lacking in strategies and data" that "they had to resubmit their teacher equity plan multiple times before department approval. The last state didn't get approval until August 2008, more than two years after the original plans were submitted."
Many states did not measure or report progress on teacher equity, leading the department to pressure them to submit additional plans, yet still not all have complied, Ali says.
During the Obama administration, the department has taken other steps to address the problem. Officials have leveraged competitive grants, convened representatives of 40 states to share strategies and conducted reviews of possible civil rights violations, Ali says.
Between late 2008 and last year, the department's Office for Civil Rights has opened 11 investigations of whether schools serving poor children have comparable resources, including quality teachers, she says. The investigations involve districts in New York, Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Indiana, Colorado, Texas and California.
States have done a better job of meeting the education law's requirement that by 2006 all teachers be "highly qualified," which was defined as having a college degree, full state certification and proven knowledge of the subject they teach.
By 2008, 95 percent of high school teachers in core academic subjects met that standard, according to the department's analysis of state reports.
"Just about everybody now is highly qualified," Almy says. By that sole standard, low-income students in schools where they are concentrated are unlikely to be shortchanged.
But an Education Trust study that Almy coauthored last year found that high-poverty schools were almost twice as likely to have core academic classes taught by instructors working outside their specialty - 20 percent versus 11 percent. That phenomenon is known as teaching "out of field."
That study, titled "Not Prepared for Class," also found that low-income students in cities and small towns were twice as likely to be taught by first-year teachers. In suburbs and rural areas, there was almost no difference where rookies were assigned.
Las Vegas has adopted a policy of denying requests from "out-of-field" teachers for transfers into high-poverty schools.
"As far as out-of-field teachers, I pretty much have zero tolerance for that," says Andre Yates, director of licensed personnel, licensure and recruitment for the Clark County School District there. He estimates that about 12 of the district's 18,000 teachers were in that situation briefly during the current school year.
Another shortcoming with the federal law's definition of highly qualified teachers is that, despite their credentials, they may not be effective in the classroom, as measured by academic progress of their students.
Ali and Almy agree that the definition in the federal education law, which Congress is rewriting, should be more performance-based.
The Obama administration's proposal for the rewritten law, Ali says, will insist on "real reporting of teacher equity by race and poverty" and prod states to differentiate teachers based on their effectiveness, including some measure of their students' growth.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina has taken that approach to assessing teacher quality as the district has assembled new teams to uplift academically faltering schools with high percentages of low-income students.
The principal chosen to take over a school in the "Strategic Staffing Initiative" is permitted to bring along five effective teachers - those whose students have made more than a year's academic progress. The principal can also oust five teachers. As a result, high-poverty schools have gained more than 100 effective teachers and lost about the same number of less effective ones in four years.
The initiative started in 2007 and has expanded gradually to include 24 schools as of this coming fall. At the first 20 schools, academic gains have generally been much higher than those in the entire urban-suburban district. On average, 88 percent of students in those schools are from low-income families, according to an analysis of district figures.
The program has attracted considerable national attention. Ann Clark, the district's chief academic officer, finds it dismaying that more school districts do not strategically assign their best teachers.
"It's putting your talent where your need is," she says. "The fact that that's not happening on a scale that we need is ironic. I hope it becomes the norm."
Targeting teachers is expected in all of the district's 178 schools, Clark says. "We expect every principal in every school to put their best teachers in the classes with the neediest students."