03/13/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

CPS Needs More (Highly Qualified) Latino Teachers

Last Wednesday a cadre of concerned parents gathered at City Hall to deliver a message to incoming Chicago Public School's Chief Ron Huberman:

CPS needs more Hispanic teachers.

And who could argue with that? According to the group, Latinos United for Educational Priorities, which spells LUPE in Spanish, Latinos represent 41 percent of all enrolled CPS students but Hispanic employees, including teachers and other staff, only number 13 percent.

Alderman Manny Flores was there, and was quoted by Leticia Espinosa in Thursday's Hoy - Chicago's Spanish-language daily newspaper - thusly:

"[This situation] is a crisis in our community and [shows] a lack of respect," Flores said. "We ask that Huberman tell us his vision and explain to us how he plans on ending this tragedy we're facing. Let's hear how he thinks he'll reduce drop-out rates and assist our students in reaching their maximum potential."

The statistics are stunning, the number of Hispanic and Latino students who dropout is shameful: 45 percent and higher depending on whether you look locally, statewide, or nationally. And the number who start but never complete college is depressing: about 20 percent of those who even try to go.

But, there are some other stunning numbers for Ron Huberman and the LUPE members to consider: the number of highly-qualified Latino teachers available to accept such positions, and the number of minority students across the U.S. who are taught by low-quality teachers who just happen to speak Spanish.

In November, a study was released that detailed how frequently high-poverty schools employ teachers to teach a subject for which they don't have an undergraduate degree.
The Associated Press story said, "Math can be hard enough, but imagine the difficulty when a teacher is just one chapter ahead of the students. It happens, and it happens more often to poor and minority students."

In their report, CORE PROBLEMS: Out-of-Field Teaching Persists in Key Academic Courses, Especially in America's High-Poverty and High-Minority Schools, the Education Trust, a children's education advocacy group, found that "in America's secondary schools, low-income students and students of color are about twice as likely as other students to be enrolled in core academic classes taught by out-of-field teachers... who possess neither certification in the subject they have been assigned to teach nor an academic major in that subject."

They found that in middle and high school mathematics, for example:

• Four in ten classes in high-poverty schools are taught by an out-of-field teacher, compared with 16.9 percent in schools serving the fewest low-income students.

• In schools with high percentages of African-American and Latino students, nearly one-third of mathematics classes are taught by out-of-field teachers, compared with 15.5 percent in schools with relatively few minority students.

I can tell you from my own experience that this is all 100 percent true, there are people in classrooms across Illinois today who are little more than glorified babysitters but they're certified to teach bilingual students because they were able to pass the tests to prove they have a proficiency in English (or Spanish, if that isn't their native language).

The Education Trust points out that "while out-of-field teaching is particularly acute in mathematics and in high-poverty and high-minority schools, the problem is pervasive. Nationwide, more than 17 percent of all core academic courses (English, math, social studies, and science) in grades 7-12 are taught by an out-of-field teacher. In the middle grades alone, the rate jumps to 40 percent."

Why? Because seven years ago, Congress required all core academic classes be taught by "highly qualified" teachers and asked districts and states to assure that poor and minority children weren't taught disproportionately by inexperienced, unqualified, or out-of-field teachers.

That federal law gave states wide latitude to define "highly qualified," and most states used that discretion to deem nearly every teacher as "highly qualified." The U.S. Department of Education essentially looked the other way, refusing to use its authority to press states either to set high standards for teachers or to solve the equity problems.

Today, secondary teachers certified in one subject continue to be assigned frequently to teach classes in additional subjects for which they're often unqualified and unprepared.

States generally sweep this problem under the rug - but out of necessity, not malevolence. Frankly, there are probably one or two bilingually fluent "real" math teachers in Illinois and they are probably working for somewhere close to a zillion bucks at a "good" school.

And yes, that is a direct result of there not being enough role model teachers who can show students that Hispanics can be totally cool and geeky-smart, too.

That's why I agree with the premise that CPS teachers and staff should be more reflective of the students they are entrusted to teach, but I advise the members of LUPE to be careful what they wish for.