Achievement Gaps

A May 5 report in Education Week summarized the Educational Testing Service report. The research indicates that wide education gaps still exist among races and economic classes. As a professional educator with over three decades of experience, I would like to address a few of the findings over the next several entries and pose some questions and possibilites of my own. So many variables occur affect educational outcome, that trying to discern cause and effect is a formidable process.

The ETS reported the following:
“In percentages of 8th graders taught by uncertified teachers, the gap has increased between Hispanic students, whose teachers are far more likely to lack certification, and white students.”

Having taught in parochial and public schools in three states, in inner-city, suburban, and rural settings I have encountered a wide range of student and teacher competencies. I completed my student-teaching in a New York City junior high school that organized the students homogeneously. The honors classes included SP1 through SP3. The bulk of the classes, however, ranged from #1 to #13. The teachers assigned to the highest number classes (e.g. #13) were more occupied with student containment than with education. The majority of students were Caucasian, and the teachers were certified.

After this internship, I went on to teach in a public high school in an upper-middle class suburb in Westchester County, where teachers maintained New York State certification. My next position was at the junior high level in a Catholic school about 20 minutes from Manhattan, where certification was not a necessity. I didn’t witness a great deal of difference between my certified and non-certified colleagues. Sitting through methodology courses may test an individual’s endurance, but it doesn’t guarantee that person will succeed in a classroom full of less-than-eager students.

My most positive teaching experience was, perhaps ironically, in the middle of Newark, New Jersey in a Catholic girls’ high school. The student population consisted largely of minority students: African American and Hispanic girls, with some Portugese as well. The school administration consisted of nuns, and some nuns were also on the faculty. Certification wasn’t required, so some of the teachers had a license, while others didn’t. In fact, most of the teachers were lay people who received what amounted to subsistence wages. However, this was the most dedicated faculty I’ve ever had the honor to work with. They had a vocation rather than a job. No one quibbled about union dues or prep time. When a colleague was out sick, everyone covered the classes, so the students could have a productive period rather than busy work.

Another positive aspect of this school was parent involvement. These students had families that were committed to their education. Some parents worked two or three jobs to pay the tuition. Make no mistake; this was an inner city school, and these girls were inner city kids. But the mere threat of a call home was sufficient to quell unruly behavior.

So, certification is no silver bullet for educational woes and ethnicity need not be an excuse for failure. Rather teacher competency, consistency, and commitment, along with a partnership with the family are keys to unlock students’ academic interests and talents.

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