Study: Teachers teaching what they don’t know

Too many teachers are teaching a subject they know little about, according to a damning report on the ability of schools to prepare kids for careers. It leads to an obvious question, “how are kids going to learn from teachers who don’t know the subject?”

The study, from Richard M. Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania, was sponsored by The Education Trust, described as a “child advocacy organization.” It was based on 2003-04 statistics.

Among the findings:

* In high-poverty schools, two in five math classes have teachers without a college major or certification in math.

* In schools with a greater share of African-American and Latino children, nearly one in three math classes is taught by such a teacher.

Perhaps this goes a long way toward explaining why an average 15-year-old in the U.S. is behind the average 15-year-old in 21 industrialized countries in math.

The problem of unqualified teachers was one of the targets of the No Child Left Behind Law, but it was overshadowed by criticism over the NCLB mandate for standardized testing. It required teachers to be “highly qualified,” but left it to the states to determine what “highly qualified” means.

The report said Minnesota classes are taught by highly qualified teachers 98.4% of the time. But teachers reported they were “in-field qualified” only 88.9% of the time. Still, only Rhode Island and Indiana had higher percentages.

Here’s the full report.

  • CaliGuy

    If you’re going to post stuff like this on your blog, I’m hoping that you’ll post stuff like this as well:

    “Minnesota Students Lead Nation on ACT Scores”

    As an experienced, professional educator who has worked on the West Coast and in the Midwest, it always saddens me to see Midwestern news services reporting on nationwide school issues. The reason being that public school districts/systems in the Midwest (especially Minnesota and Wisconsin) are far superior (in general, of course) than public schools on the coasts or in the South. Reporting like this only serves to get the ultra-conservative crowd in Minnesota worked into a lather and only serves to confuse the issue of public education in places like Minnesota. It is apples and oranges.

    Please try to take this into consideration with regard to your reporting on education.

  • chzlr

    Maybe if schools didn’t have to beg taxpayers for money each year then more people with math majors would be tempted to go into teaching. It’s all about having you efforts and intelligence equally rewarded- something that doesn’t happen well enough for those employed in public schools.

    I’m currently and English as a Second Language teacher. I would love to get my math license- I took math all the way through advanced calculus in college- but I just can’t afford it, and my employer doesn’t offer me any assistance even if I promise to teach in my current district.

    If they want help, somebody’s going to have to work with us here.

    That includes parents. Teachers can teach their heart out all day long, but if nothing is reinforced at home, it’s a lost cause.

  • bsimon

    “I’m currently and English as a Second Language teacher. I would love to get my math license- I took math all the way through advanced calculus in college- but I just can’t afford it, and my employer doesn’t offer me any assistance even if I promise to teach in my current district.”

    Is the district in which you teach short of well-qualified math teachers?

  • Bob Collins

    //The reason being that public school districts/systems in the Midwest (especially Minnesota and Wisconsin) are far superior (in general, of course) than public schools on the coasts or in the South.

    CaliGuy, whoever said they weren’t? You imply incorrectly that that sort of thing isn’t reported. But the significance of the report is actually part of the achievement gap, and that’s a very real issue here and elsewhere.

    If you read the report, and I’m guessing you didn’t, you’ll note that where the practice of using unqualified teachers is greatest is in schools populated by poor and minority students.

    Minnesota schools do very well in relation to other parts of the country, but that’s setting the bar pretty low, isn’t it?

    But since you talked about ACT scores, let’s look at those a little bit. Let’s take Minneapolis. Seventy-three percent of white eighth graders were math proficient, compared to 14 percent of African-Americans and 9 percent of American Indian students.

    Statewide, whites scored about 80.1% correct on the math and 73.8% correct on reading, while African Americans scored 59.5 and 54.5% correct on the math and reading exams, respectively.

    Clearly there are many reasons for this. But if there *is* a relationship between the quality of the teacher and the person being taught, that’s worth exploring, not covering up.

    There are some very fascinating initiatives in Minnesota to improve math. Here’s one I wrote about here.

    Beyond that, teacher preparation is an issue. MinnPost had an interesting article earlier this month that quoted Peter Hutchinson as pointing out that while Minnesota trains four teachers, it only hires one.

    Apparently the Bush Foundation is about to fund an initiative on teacher preparation that gets to the heart of the issue. So as good as Minnesota may be in comparison to the rest of the country where teachers are concerned, there is clearly a recogniition that in a global economy, the state is not nearly good enough.

    Beyond that, someone will have to give me a good reason before I doubt the logic of asking how kids are supposed to learn if teachers aren’t qualified in what they’re teaching? It seems like a pretty good question to me.

    And if one of every three math classes in schools with a greater share of Latino and African American students is taught by an unqualified teacher, I’m sorry, it gives me little comfort in the big scheme of things to know that the white kids of Minnesota are far better off, and that teacher advocates aren’t outraged by that fact.

  • CaliGuy

    As is your modus operandi, you appear to take a critique of your work and respond by throwing a bunch of somewhat related items and throw them to the wall in hopes that one or two stick.

    To address a few:

    1) I did not claim that MN student achievement is not reported. I claimed that *you* didn’t report on it, implying that this current post is not even-handed and that your history of reporting is slanted. If you can supply an earlier post of your wherein you present story on school or student achievement, I’m all for it. Otherwise, it appears to me that you’re simply attempting to fan conservative anti-public school flames with this post.

    2) No one in their right mind would deny that there is a racial gap in standarized testing. As you correctly point out, there are many reasons for this issues. Sadly, however, you’re missing the larger point: If you were really interested in looking into student performance in “high-poverty” schools, you would focus not on race, but on the direct relationship between student performance and poverty (in addition to the high correlation between student performance and access to health care). Clearly, there is a link between poverty and race in this country. However, poverty “does not have a skin color”, and this is the most important indicator of student performance, not race. Sources (just a tip of the iceberg):

    3) Including the Peter Hutchinson/Bush Foundation bit in your response undercuts your own argument that the issue at hand is relevant to Minnesota schools. Minnesota teachers are some of — if not the most — best prepared teachers in the country. Minnesota educator licensing requirements require some of the highest standards in the nation. And the stats you provide claim that while Minnesota trains four teachers, it only hires one — think of what that stat proclaims! Ideally, Minnesota schools are hiring the best 25% of all the teachers it trains! How about that!? Look further into the stats to see if teachers in Minnesota’s highest-poverty areas are lacking the academic or certification background for their teaching area. I’ll give you a hint: it doesn’t happen often in Minnesota, as over 97.5% of all Minnesota educators meet the NCLB Highly Qualified Teacher requirements (source:

    So, again: if you want to claim that a report asserting that “teachers with neither an academic major nor certification in the subjects they teach” is highly relevant to what is going on in Minnesota schools, I’ll continue to comment that you’re practicing a modern form of yellow journalism and general obfuscation.

  • Bob Collins

    CaliGuy, please take the time to read the report and you’re more than welcome to participate in a discussion on the issue.One of the things that has made News Cut so successful is the willingness of those participating in discussions to engage in thoughtful debate. You’re more than welcome to participate in that.

    That Minnesota is better off than the national average is undeniable and I certainly stipulate to that fact. The report isn’t about Minnesota schools. It’s about a nationwide problem that a study has highlighted. And I believe I pointed out Minnesota’s favorable rating on the issue and that would be great if the world revolved only around Minnesota.

    I’m not the issue and if you think posting details about a report constitutes a conservative attack on Minnesota schools, that’s certainly a conclusion you have a right to draw. I don’t waste my time on those sorts of allegations because they’re meant to distract from a more thoughtful discussion of a particular issue.

    I’m not the issue. The issue is well spelled out in the Pennsylvania study which I hope you read and can provide some insight on. I’ve also seen nothing in Dr. Ingersoll’s background that suggests a conservative agenda.

  • BJ Bonin

    My wife is a HS science teacher with a science background. She teaches Earth Science, Physics and an occasional math class.

    When she isn’t able to teach (e.g. maternity leave, sabbatical, etc.), there are really no substitutes. 90% of the science teachers at her school have biology backgrounds, and nobody else has a Geology degree (including the other Earth Science teachers).

    This is a really big problem in our society. Teacher’s salary isn’t that bad so money isn’t much of an issue. It’s the licensing. You need to be licensed in order to teach at a public school. In order to get licensed you need an EDUCATION degree (my wife needed to go to Education grad school), not a science/math/language/etc degree. While teaching isn’t easy, the education degree is a cakewalk compared to the intellectual rigor of math or a physical science like physics or geology. Many college kids know this and major in education because it is considered an easy path to graduation and summers off. Generally, people interested in science AND teaching will get a graduate degree and teach at College level.

    If they want better math and science teachers, the State needs to change the way teachers are licensed.

  • Bob Collins

    The Strib had a good feature today on people with real world experience who have gone into the classroom, as part of a program in St. Paul. And I believe one of Gov. Pawlenty’s initiatives has been to make it easier for people like that to become teachers. I’m not sure what the status of that is, however.

    By coincidence, I had a chat with a cubicle neighbor yesterday who said she’d love to teach math in schools but can’t afford the cost of a teaching degree.