DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — Bad reputations have consequences. Even if they are based on fiction, bad raps can close businesses, ruin future job opportunities, or -- if you’re Columbia Middle School -- make it difficult to hire the most qualified teachers.

Troya Bishop wants to change that. 

“It’s not a fair reputation because there are a lot of wonderful things that happen at the school,” said the DeKalb County mother. 

Bishop’s daughter, Zoe, attended Columbia Middle last year. She and her daughter say their experience at the school was nothing but positive.

Last year, Zoe was part of the school chorus which won a state title. The school’s Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) also received recognition from the national organization the same year. 

Troya and Zoe Bishop - Unequal Schools Investigation
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“The teachers that are there love what they do,” said Bishop. “They show up with the most important characteristic, which is the ability to really care about other people.”

While Bishop praises the school’s accolades, the school has challenges. Records recently released from the Georgia Department of Education (GDOE) show 43 percent of all courses taught at Columbia Middle last year were led by instructors teaching out of their field. 

That means the teachers did not have certification in the subject matter they were teaching.

Bishop, who is a former middle school teacher, said subject matter credentials don't always mean your child will get a better teacher, but it can make a difference. 

“It matters because the students need to learn from somebody who knows what they’re talking about,” said Bishop.

A Reveal analysis of hundreds of schools across Georgia shows a pattern to the problem - courses taught by underqualified teachers, often impacting rural schools and communities of color the most.

Find out how many unqualified teachers your school has in our searchable database (story continues below database)

Disparities can be found within the same district. For example, Columbia and Champion middle schools are a few miles apart in the DeKalb County School District.

At Champion, nearly all courses were taught by teachers certified in their subject areas last year. Not one of its science courses was taught by underqualified teachers last year. Compare that to Columbia Middle, where 57 percent of its science courses were taught by instructors teaching out of their fields.

Bishop said the inequity derives from decades-old redlining and poverty, which continues to impact the county’s black communities today. Until 1996, the DeKalb County School District was under a desegregation order by the federal government.

“DeKalb County still has a reputation of being segregated. There is north DeKalb and south DeKalb. And, Columbia Middle School is in south DeKalb and south DeKalb has a reputation of you won’t get the resources, you won’t get the funding,” said Bishop. “In north DeKalb, you’ll get resources … you go to south DeKalb and you gotta struggle as a teacher to really get what you need for your students. So, all of those things go through a person’s mind when they’re making a decision about where they want to teach.”

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Poverty plays a big role, too. At Columbia Middle, more than 65 percent of its students are so poor they qualify for free lunch subsidized by the government. Champion Middle has less than half as many students who qualify for federal subsidies.

In a statement prepared by a spokesperson for the DeKalb County School District, administrators say Columbia Middle’s challenges are indicative to a national problem.

“Every effort is made to recruit and retain high performing certified teachers. Due to the national teaching shortage, the Dekalb County School District faces the challenge of finding enough certified teachers to fill vacancies. Therefore, the District hires individuals who are not certified but are eligible for certification because they hold degrees in closely related content areas. While the District requires those individuals to obtain their certification as soon as possible, the Human Capital Management Division provides guidance and support for maneuvering through the certification process,” wrote the district spokesperson.

The GDOE released its out-of-field course records for the first time ever earlier this year. The agency says it was a requirement under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Education advocates, like Marlyn Tillman, say the information is crucial for the public to see and scrutinize. 

“This is very important because it talks about the quality level of the lesson that your student is getting,” she said.

Marlyn Tillman Education Advocate
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Tillman is the executive director of the Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline, or SToPP. She thinks the numbers reflect institutional discrimination. 

“We fund our values, right? So, if we really are a nation that believes in, this state, that is so grounded in the least of these, why are the least of these still the least? What are we doing to bring that up? We’re not,” said Tillman. 

Cindy Saxon is an associate superintendent at the Georgia Department of Education. The former teacher and principle is now in charge of two divisions at the agency. One division is over a federally funded program to recruit, prepare and train teachers and school leaders. The other division oversees teacher evaluations.

Saxon said the state recognizes that hiring quality teachers in challenging schools is difficult, but the agency largely relies on school districts to make decisions best for their communities.

Cindy Saxon Georgia Dept of Education
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“High poverty schools are sometimes very difficult to teach in and the reason for that is that parents are sometimes working two and three jobs, and they are engaged with their children, don’t get me wrong, but they are not as likely to be involved in the school community and some teachers look for that, they want that,” said Saxon.

Saxon said the state once offered a $15,000 pay incentive to teach in high-poverty schools, but it didn’t work. Few teachers applied. “They didn’t have any takers. They may have had one or two, but it was not enough to make it a significant strategy,” said Saxon.

After the incentive offer expired, the poorer districts are not only still stuck with underqualified teachers, but often with instructors who have the least experience.

Saxon said that doesn’t mean students aren’t learning. She said a good teacher is more than just credentials and longevity in the classroom. 

“I believe it depends on the credentials of those teachers are considered out-of-field and what they bring to the table. And, I also believe that the schools and the districts know their personnel and they know their children better than I could possibly ever know them,” said Saxon.

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“I’ve seen a lot of inexperienced teachers that came out of college that were knocking it out of the park,” said Saxon. “And I’ve seen some 25-year veterans that needed to go down and take a look at those new kids on the block. So, I think it’s that level of effectiveness is what is critical about that and that the inexperienced is not the real issue.”

Steven Owens said experience matters. A lot. He’s a senior education policy analyst with the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute. Owens said experience is the best indicator available to identify teacher quality. 

“Over a whole, the body of research that we have on education is that teacher experience is the best thing that we have to understand whether a teacher is effective or not,” said Owens.

The Problem with STEM

Of all the core courses in Georgia’s public education system, the newly-released data shows STEM classes are most likely taught by instructors without credentials in the subject matter they’re teaching. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

As an aspiring surgeon, that’s frustrating for 15-year-old Dakota Vaughn, a freshman a Discover High School in Gwinnett County.

For nearly a month this school year, three different substitute teachers taught her advanced geometry class while her teacher was out on medical leave. Only one of the substitute teachers had certification to teach math. 

The freshman said a recent poor test score is indicative of poor instruction, not for lack of trying. 

“My grade on the interim was a 47 - a big ouch,” said Vaughn.

Dakota Vaughn unequal schools investigation
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Her mother, Toyahsa, wasn’t happy with the results. 

“She had a really poor grade on her midterm which I think is a direct reflection of upon how she was taught,” she said.

According to records obtained from the Georgia Department of Education, more than a quarter (25.62%) of all courses taught at Discovery last year were led by instructors teaching out of their field. It was worse in math classes – more than a third (34%) taught by underqualified teachers.

“Is it fair to blame a child for their lack of performance when they weren’t provided with the appropriate tools to perform – no, it’s not,” said the Gwinnett County mother.

A spokesperson for Gwinnett County School District said the state’s numbers can be misleading without context. She said the majority of Discovery’s teachers taught in their fields last year and it’s improved this school year.

“Discovery High School and its new principal have implemented processes and targeted support this year to ensure teachers hired are in-field and that existing staff have been assigned to courses aligned to their certification. There is still some work to be done, but they have made tremendous headway. Of Discovery High School’s 155 teachers this year, all but 9 who teach 27 courses are in-field. In addition, all of the school’s teachers providing math instruction are currently in-field,” wrote Sloan Roach, the district’s executive director of communication and media relations.

Roach said the out-of-field courses can appear higher than reality because the state counted courses not only taught at Discovery but also classes at technical schools, where some of its students attend school as well.

The DeKalb County School District is targeting its recruiting efforts to focus on difficult to staff areas such as math, science, and special education. “Those efforts include recruiting in neighboring states, working with teacher education programs in various colleges and universities, and working closely with our principals to forecast school-based needs,” wrote the district’s spokesperson.

The GDOE and school districts offer pay incentives to compel more math and science teachers to get certified, but they still struggle with hiring them. Earlier this year, the state legislature passed a budget to include a $3,000 raise for teachers.

Education advocates like Owens said that’s a good start, but Georgia teachers are still underpaid and don’t get the support they need in the classroom. 

“We need to have a base level that we know that all teachers are being paid in order to boost up the profession or do right by teachers that are teaching already,” said Owens.

The Reveal is an investigative show exposing inequality, injustice, and ineptitude created by people in power throughout Georgia and across the country.  It airs Sunday nights at 6 on 11Alive.

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