How Do We Increase Teacher Quality in Low-Income Schools?

An eighth grade math class in Oakland, California, had so many substitute teachers in one year the students couldn’t keep track of them, let alone remember all their names. They live in a high-poverty neighborhood where school funding is so low the district finds it cheaper to hire a series of substitutes rather than pay a full-time teacher. As a result, the eighth graders don’t have access to a high quality teacher, or the chance to learn very much math.

As Congress takes up the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), education experts are urging lawmakers to address pay and funding issues that cause major inequities in the teaching talent at public schools in Oakland and around the country. According to most studies, low-income schools with high minority populations are three to ten times more likely to have unqualified teachers than students in more affluent, predominantly white schools.

In a new report, “Speaking of Salaries: What It Will Take to Get Qualified, Effective Teachers in All Communities,” Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University, and Frank Adamson, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford, examine how and why teacher quality is unevenly distributed.

They started by looking at California and New York – two large states that face similar demographic diversity and educational challenges.

Although New York’s schools are, on average, much better funded – at more than $17,000 per pupil in state and local funding in 2007, compared to California’s $9,700 – both receive a wide range of funding across districts, as is true in most states in the country. The authors found that the inequalities in teacher qualifications in the two states are strongly related to differences in overall school funding and teacher salaries, which in turn are related to student achievement.

Common sense would dictate that schools with the highest need would receive the most funding and teachers who are most qualified to tackle the challenges these schools pose. In fact, the opposite is true.

“The schools with the least qualified teachers usually have a lot of other problems too,” said Darling-Hammond at a recent panel discussion at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. The problems range from lack of administrative support to poor working conditions to little access to materials like new textbooks and technology.

“These schools then become dumping grounds for poor and minority students as well as unqualified teachers,” she says.

Poor teacher salaries combined with low overall funding leads to difficulty recruiting and retaining educators other than those who are new to the profession, or those who couldn’t find jobs anywhere else.

The Comparability Loophole

The purpose of the federal Title I program is to give extra resources to schools with low-income students. Federal rules require that districts continue to give these schools their fair share of state and local money. One reason that funding remains low at the schools that need it most is because of a loophole in the Title I funding provision.

In exchange for Title I money, each state and district must guarantee, among other things, that all Title I schools receive “comparable” portions of state and local funding. However, a district can comply by merely counting the number of teachers at each school and comparing them to the number of students enrolled, rather than comparing the dollar amounts spent on those teachers’ salaries. As long as the teacher-student ratios are equal at every school, the district has met its obligation.

This “comparability loophole” allows districts to make it look as if all teachers make the same amount of money when most everyone knows there are huge disparities.

On average, schools with low-income students have fewer veteran teachers who are at the top of the salary scale. Some stay, but others burn out in the high-stress environment and transfer to more affluent schools with better resources.

As a result, higher paid, more experienced teachers wind up in more affluent schools, and lower-paid, less qualified teachers wind up at low income schools, triggering a cycle of inequity.

In their report, Linda Darling-Hammond and Frank Adamson recommend that Congress close the loophole by ensuring that ESEA comparability provisions work as they were intended – to provide equitable funding and equally qualified teachers to schools serving different populations of students.

They also recommend:

  • Increasing and equalizing salaries to improve the pool of teachers and level the playing field across districts
  • Raising all teacher standards, knowledge and skills with stronger preparation and licensing processes and extensive professional development
  • Improving new teacher retention through mentoring

They recommend against incentive, or “combat pay,” not only because there is no evidence that these types of programs work, but because, as NEA Director of Collective Bargaining and Member Advocacy Bill Raabe – also a panelist at Friday’s discussion – points out, an incentive called “combat pay” isn’t going to appeal to many would-be applicants.

“Why would we want to send anyone – teacher or student — into ‘combat’ schools,” asks Raabe. “We know what attracts the best into the profession – high pay accompanied by good working conditions, appropriate evaluations, and professional development. Incentives don’t work, especially when they’re put on top of a low base salary.”


Raising starting salaries is the main goal of NEA’s professional pay campaign. Find out more at