Executive Perspective

A Novel Notion: Best Teachers at Poorest Schools

by Paul D. Houston

The critics of public education have a million reasons why they think our schools don’t work. They cite things like bureaucracy, teacher unions, lack of accountability and monopolistic practices as reasons why American schools don’t keep pace internationally. However, you can’t look to the critics for clarity because their concerns are overly simplistic and just plain wrong.

Our schools are much more competitive internationally than the critics admit. How else are we the dominant country in the world? Did all our good things come from private education?

At the basest level, when comparing standardized test scores we hold our own. In most comparisons we end up somewhere in the middle of the pack. Not something to write home about, but no reason for shame. Factoring in all the problems with international comparisons, differences in culture, curriculum and sampling would minimize any cause for regret.

Tolerating Disparities
But what is masked in these comparisons is a more basic truth about America’s schools that should give us all cause for worry. That is that we tolerate great discrepancies in our schools with how we allocate resources to them and how we support them. In fact, a recent international study, when disaggregated, showed American students being among the best and the worst in the world. It just depends on where they go to school.


One of the silver linings in the new accountability push will be the need to disaggregate our data on student achievement. That might lead to a more meaningful discussion on what resources are needed to actually “leave no child behind.”

This leads to the other great fallacy that our critics overlook. We really don’t have an American educational problem. Our weaknesses are much narrower and more targeted. We have serious problems in schools that enroll a high proportion of low-income children. The reasons are many. They tend to have less social capital behind them (intact homes, families with higher educational attainment, etc.) and less real capital behind them. Schools are funded largely off of property taxes and they tend to be tied to wealth. Wealthy communities raise more money and give it to schools. Poor communities cannot do so.

But the bedrock issue facing schools serving children from low-income families is the quality of their teachers and principals. And that is a variable school districts, states and the federal government can and must address. The fact is schools with high concentrations of poor children often get the poorest prepared teachers and those who are more likely not to be certified. Those schools also typically have the highest levels of turnover.

How can we expect to improve the learning of students when those leading that learning are the least able to do so? Now let me be clear: There are many fine, dedicated teachers and principals in these schools. But the facts are also clear—there aren’t enough and there are too many people lacking the training and experience to rise to the challenge.

A recent paper on this subject developed at AASA by Cindy Prince outlines several key points. First, students most at risk of reading difficulties, poor and minority students, are increasingly isolated in impoverished schools. These schools have fewer resources, greater teacher and administrator shortages, fewer applicants for vacancies, higher absenteeism among teachers and higher rates of staff turnover.

Much of this turnover is due to the adverse working conditions in these schools. Just as we know that fewer people are entering administration because they do not see the benefits outweighing the costs, we also know that teachers decline to stay long in situations where the benefits aren’t up to the challenge. Placement in difficult assignments without adequate support has been shown to be one of the chief reasons beginning teachers leave the profession. Assigning beginning teachers to low-income schools is not only unfair to the students, but it is also unfair to those teachers and increases the problems that already exist.

A Partial Solution
Most administrators are aware that union contracts frequently control teacher assignment. Superintendents and boards must bear some responsibility for allowing this to happen. But fighting to control teacher assignment is only part of the battle. At some point we must deal with the working conditions in those schools. We need to ensure that our strongest leaders work there and then make it worth their while to stay there financially by giving them the tools they need to succeed. Perhaps classes should be smaller in those schools, more human support offered and better technology made available.


At some point we need to consider compensation. AASA recently offered an idea that qualified teachers and principals be given federal tax credits for working in struggling schools. This would provide an incentive for recruiting and keeping good people in these schools.

No easy answers or silver-bullet solutions exist to make certain we leave no child behind. But we might start by admitting what the real problems are and then acknowledging that when it comes to poverty, throwing money at the problem is at least a partial solution.

Perhaps we can’t keep poor children from being poor, but we can make certain they are given the best teachers and principals possible. It is very American to want to see people pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. First we must make certain they are wearing boots.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director. E-mail:phouston@aasa.org