High Schoolers Who Struggle With Math Lack Qualified Teachers

If teachers make a substantial impact in student outcomes, students who are having difficulties with mathematics are victims of some very tough luck. According to recent studies on teacher effectiveness, qualified math teachers at a high school level are very difficult to find – especially in places where students chronically struggle with the subject.

How critical is a good teacher for a high schooler having troubles in mathematics? According to Sarah D. Sparks of EdWeek.org, if students don’t catch up to their classmates most of the way by the end of 9th grade, they’re at a much higher risk of dropping out of school before graduating.

It’s a nasty cycle, according to the study presented by Cara Jackson of the University of Maryland last month. In districts where students typically struggle in math, highly qualified math teachers could make the most difference. Yet these are exactly the districts and high schools where highly-qualified teachers are least likely to be found.

Teachers have been unevenly distributed both within schools, in that students in lower academic tracks have had less well-qualified teachers, and across schools, such that qualifications of teachers tend to be lower in disadvantaged, low-income, and high-minority schools . Not surprisingly, these inequities in students’ educational opportunities have been linked to disparities in educational outcomes. The achievement gap between more and less advantaged students can be attributed in part to the inequitable distribution of teachers across schools.

This discrepancy was one of the chief issues that the passage of No Child Left Behind was supposed to address. Yet 7 years after its passage, when it comes to schools that underperform chronically, students who are high-performers in math are still about 10% more likely to be assigned a highly-qualified teacher than those who underperform. The trend appears to be exactly opposite in schools where children are better math students on average. In such cases, administrators appear to assign the best qualified teachers to students who are struggling most.

In short, if you’re struggling in math, your best odds for getting a teacher most able to help you improve is to attend a high-performing school, even if that means enrolling with students who outpace you in the subject.

Though the research on school context suggests teachers prefer working with higher-income and white students, Hanushek, Rivkin and Kain (2004) acknowledged that student characteristics may be proxies for other factors that shape teachers’ preferences. That is, if lower income and minority students attend schools with less attractive working conditions, the patterns of teacher behavior that suggest a preference for wealthier and whiter students might be at least partially explained by preferences for better working conditions. Ingersoll’s work suggests school staffing problems result from a “revolving door”, where large numbers of qualified teachers depart their jobs out of dissatisfaction with aspects of the school environment, such as student discipline problems.