California's teaching force  
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key issues

California’s shortage of fully prepared teachers is troubling. But far more disturbing is the distribution of underprepared teachers. California’s poorest and most vulnerable children are by far the most likely to face teachers with the least training and the least experience.

There has been some marginal improvement in the last year, but the numbers remain unacceptable — schools with the highest number of minority students have more than one in five teachers who are underprepared, while in schools with the lowest number of minority students less than one teacher in 20 is underprepared.

Beyond those teachers who are underprepared, these schools often have many teachers who have little experience even if they have a credential. In 1,500 California schools — 17 percent — a quarter or more of the teachers are in their first or second year of teaching. In 700 schools, at least one-third of teachers are in their first or second year. Experience matters, and these schools have a limited capacity to deliver high-quality instruction and rarely have enough accomplished teachers to provide leadership and assistance to the newest teachers.

Despite this variance in instructional capacity, all California students are expected to meet the same rigorous academic standards. And California has raised the stakes significantly for all students who do not meet these standards. Beginning in spring 2004, high school seniors who have not passed the state’s exit exam will be denied a diploma.

Initial results on the exit exam are disappointing, particularly for poor and minority students. Worse, schools with the lowest passing rates also have the most underprepared teachers.

Students in schools with the lowest passing rates on the exam are more than twice as likely to face underprepared teachers as are students in schools with the highest passing rates. The sad truth is that those students who need the most help have the least-trained and least-experienced teachers to help them succeed in a system with very high stakes.