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TEACHER QUALITY GAPS: New Studies Reveal Wide Disparities in Student Access to High-Quality Teachers

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Uneven Playing Field? reveals how teacher quality varies between classrooms, schools, and districts, and exposes the teacher quality gaps that exist between student subgroups. Meanwhile, the NCES study finds that teacher quality likewise varies considerably between academic subjects.

Two recent research reports—one focused on Washington state and one focused on the nation as a whole—document significant gaps in the access different student groups have to high-quality teachers. The first study, published in the journal of the American Educational Research Association Educational Researcher, finds that students of color, students from low-income families, and students with the greatest academic needs receive the least qualified teachers in Washington state. In a separate study, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) documents the variations in teacher quality between academic subjects.

In the Educational Researcher study, researchers find “that in elementary school, middle school, and high school classrooms, virtually every measure of teacher quality we examine—experience, licensure exam scores, and value added—is inequitably distributed across every indicator of student disadvantage—free/reduced-price lunch status, underrepresented minority, and low prior academic performance. … [D]isadvantaged students (regardless of definition) are more likely to have a low-quality teacher (regardless of definition) than are nondisadvantaged students in the same grade level.”

Furthermore, the gaps in access to high-quality teachers are, on average, even larger between traditionally underserved students and their peers than the gaps for exposure to low-quality teachers. So while “disadvantaged students may be more likely to be taught by a low-quality teacher … they are even less likely to be taught by a high-quality teacher,” the study says.

The study, Uneven Playing Field? Assessing the Teacher Quality Gap Between Advantaged and Disadvantaged Students, defines “low-quality” teachers as

  • those with two or fewer years of experience (“novice teachers”);
  • those who scored in the lowest 10 percent on the Washington Educator Test—Basic (WEST—B), the state test prospective educators must pass before enrolling in a teacher preparation program; and
  • those whose value-added estimates place them in the bottom 10 percent of teachers statewide for effectiveness.

By contrast, “high-quality” teachers have more than ten years of experience or rank in the top 10 percent of teachers statewide with their WEST—B scores or on the researchers’ estimates of teacher effectiveness.

The greatest teacher quality gaps exist in middle schools, according to the study. Among seventh-grade math students, more than 19 percent of those who scored in the lowest quartile on the state test (i.e., those with the greatest academic needs) were taught by teachers who ranked in the bottom 10 percent of teachers statewide for effectiveness. By contrast, only 7 percent of students who earned top scores on Washington’s state test were taught by teachers in the least effective category. Similarly, middle school students of color attended classes taught by the least experienced teachers. The average seventh-grade math teacher for a student of color had 1.75 fewer years of experience than the average seventh-grade math teacher for a white student, according to the study.

Why Teacher Quality Gaps Exist

In addition to determining the severity of teacher quality gaps, the researchers analyzed patterns of teacher sorting at the district, school, and classroom levels to determine the sources of those inequities. They find that most inequity “comes from teacher sorting across districts and schools as opposed to sorting of teachers across classrooms in schools,” the study says.

Furthermore, districts with the highest concentrations of traditionally underserved students have the greatest disparities in the distribution of low-quality teachers among student subgroups. For instance, in districts with the highest concentrations of poverty, fourth graders eligible for free or reduced-price lunch are 2.4 percentage points more likely to have a novice teacher than are students from the same district who do not qualify for the lunch program. Similarly, in districts with the highest concentrations of students of color, African American, Latino, and American Indian students are 3.37 percentage points more likely than their white peers to receive a less effective teacher.

At the middle school level specifically, though, the greatest inequities in teacher quality exist between schools and between classrooms, rather than solely between districts. Seventh-grade students of color and students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch are more likely than affluent white students to attend schools with higher percentages of novice teachers. Similarly, within schools, seventh graders with the lowest performance on the annual state math and reading assessments are more likely to have the least effective teachers.

“This suggests that low-performing seventh graders may be disproportionately ‘tracked’ into classrooms with previously ineffective teachers,” the Uneven Playing Field? study says.

Patterns in teacher retention, hiring, and transfers may contribute to the inequitable distribution of low- and high-quality teachers between districts and between schools, the study says. Additionally, “in schools that ‘track’ students by performance level, the inequities we observe [between classrooms] (particularly at the middle school level) could be due in part to more qualified teachers being assigned to teach more ‘advanced’ courses,” the study says.

Understanding Teacher Quality Gaps Between Subjects

Uneven Playing Field? reveals how teacher quality varies between classrooms, schools, and districts, and exposes the teacher quality gaps that exist between student subgroups. Meanwhile, the NCES study finds that teacher quality likewise varies considerably between academic subjects.

The NCES report, Education and Certification Qualifications of Departmentalized Public High School-Level Teachers of Selected Subjects: Evidence from the 2011–12 Schools and Staffing Survey, examines the percentage of high school teachers who hold majors and state certifications in the subjects they teach.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the current reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, requires all teachers in core academic subjects to be “highly qualified,” which the law defines as having a bachelor’s degree and full state certification in each core academic subject they teach. Using that definition as a guide, the NCES study examines the extent to which high school teachers had in-field qualifications and the extent to which students and classes were taught by teachers with those qualifications during School Year 2011–12. The study examines the distribution in eleven broad subject areas, ranging from English and math to foreign languages and the fine arts, as well as nine additional subfields within science and social science, including chemistry, biology, geography, and history.

The study finds that the majority of high school teachers in the eleven broad subject areas, with the exception of Latin, held both a postsecondary degree and teaching certificate in the primary subject they taught. Furthermore, within the eleven broad subject areas, the NCES study finds that the majority of students in grades 9–12 took classes taught by teachers with both qualifications, with the exception of German, Latin, and dance/drama or theater classes.

However, a closer look at the individual broad subjects and subfields reveals striking differences in the distribution of highly-qualified teachers between subject areas. On the high end, 85 percent of ninth through twelfth graders took music classes taught by teachers with both a college degree and state certification in music. The broad subject area of science ranked second highest, with 72 percent of students taking classes taught by a highly-qualified teacher. Yet, among the subfields within science, the percentages are less encouraging. While 62 percent of students studied biology/life sciences with a highly-qualified teacher, only 28 percent of physics students and 23 percent of earth science students took classes taught by teachers who possessed both a college degree and state certification in their respective science areas.

Similarly, in the broad category of social science, nearly 68 percent of ninth- through twelfth-grade students studied with highly-qualified teachers. In history specifically, though, only 23 percent of high school students attended classes taught by teachers with both a college degree and state certification in the subject. By comparison, nearly 69 percent of English students and almost 62 percent of math students took classes taught by highly-qualified teachers.

While, on average, the majority of high school teachers are “highly qualified” by NCLB standards, the NCES study shows that major discrepancies still exist in teacher qualifications between subjects. Furthermore, the NCES study does not link teacher qualifications with student outcomes or examine the distribution of highly-qualified teachers among subgroups of students. And, as the study on Washington state shows, significant disparities remain in the distribution of those highly-qualified teachers between classrooms, schools, and districts.

Uneven Playing Field? Assessing the Teacher Quality Gap Between Advantaged and Disadvantaged Students is available at http://edr.sagepub.com/content/44/5/293.full.pdf.

Education and Certification Qualifications of Departmentalized Public High School-Level Teachers of Selected Subjects: Evidence from the 2011–12 Schools and Staffing Survey is available at http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2015/2015814.pdf.

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