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Volume 25, Number 1
January/February 2009

Wanted: Better Ninth-Grade Teachers

Concern over graduation rates has schools rethinking teacher assignments


If talented, experienced teachers in some DeKalb County high schools outside Atlanta want a prime parking space or super-clean classroom, they need only say yes to one thing: volunteer to teach ninth grade. North Lawndale College Prep charter school in Chicago expects Advanced Placement teachers to teach freshmen. And at POLYTECH High School in Delaware, a schoolwide emphasis on cultivating ninth graders means teachers are “fighting” for open positions in the freshman academy, according to the principal there.

Ninth grade has long been identified as a critical year. Social networks established in earlier grade levels are disrupted when new ninth graders arrive at large, often impersonal high school campuses. Academic expectations rise, and many students are ill prepared to meet them. Over the past three decades, researchers say, ninth-grade enrollment has swelled with students who are not promoted to the tenth grade. The concern is most acute in urban districts, where studies have linked ninth-grade course failures to the odds of students’ dropping out.

At the same time, researchers have begun documenting a related phenomenon: For a variety of reasons, teachers with fewer credentials and less experience tend to teach the youngest high school students.

Mel Riddile, associate director for high school services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals, summarizes the problem by drawing an analogy to House, the popular television medical drama. “The premise is that the best doctor treats the most critically ill patients,” Riddile says. “We do exactly the opposite of that in most high schools.”

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    For Further Information

    R.C. Neild and E. Farley-Ripple. “Within-School Variation in Teacher Quality: The Case of Ninth Grade.” American Journal of Education 114, no. 3 (2008): 271–305.

    R.C. Neild, S. Stoner-Eby and F. Furstenberg. “Connecting Entrance and Departure: The Transition to Ninth Grade and High School Dropout.” Education and Urban Society 40, no. 5 (2008): 543–569.

    “Their Fair Share: How Texas-Sized Gaps in Teacher Quality Shortchange Poor and Minority Children.” The Education Trust,

    Southern Regional Education Board