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Why Don’t We Ever Talk About Within-School Teacher Distribution?

By Sara Mead — September 11, 2012 2 min read

Per this, a couple conversations with family over the past weekend have got me thinking more about the issue of how individual kids are assigned to teachers and individual kids’ experiences over time:

A relative of mine, a retired educator, has been working with a young lady who recently started her first elementary teaching job in a middle and working class suburban district. On her first day, she was dismayed to find that 1/3 of her first graders had IEPs and none of them were achieving at grade level. Later, talking to her fellow first grade teachers she was told, “Oh, yes, you have all the slow kids.”

A family friend has a little boy in elementary school. At his open house the week before school started, it became apparent that all of the “good” kids in his grade, including all the children whose parents are teachers in the district, are assigned to one well-regarded teacher, and her little boy is not in that class.

Now, obviously, these are just individual stories and our public education system is big and varied enough that you can find an individual story to support just about anything. But three points (backed up by further evidence!) worth noting here:

First, policy conversations about equitable teacher distribution tend to focus almost exclusively on teacher distribution across schools, and how to get more effective teachers working in high-poverty schools. That’s important. But research suggests that most of the variation in teacher quality occurs within rather that between schools. There is also evidence that the kids who most need good teachers tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to within school teacher distribution--exactly the opposite of what we want to have happen. If we’re serious about ensuring effective teachers for all students, we need to engage issues of teacher distribution within as well as across schools.

Second, with ARRA, SIG, RTT, and now ESEA waivers, the focus of school accountability efforts is increasingly shifting to the lowest-performing schools. But there are plenty of kids slipping through the cracks in even “good” schools and districts (both the incidents above occurred in largely white, middle-class districts generally regarded as good). The vast majority of kids don’t attend schools in the bottom 5%, so if we focus only on those schools, we’ll miss the majority of kids who are being underserved. The knock on NCLB was that it labeled otherwise “good” schools as failing based on the performance of a few students or subgroups--but that was a feature, not a bug, and there’s real danger in shifting focus away from how “good” schools are serving vulnerable subpopulations.

Third, what kind of messed up system do we have where a first-year teacher gets assigned “all the slow kids” in a grade level?! That’s no way to serve those kids and it’s no way to foster talent in the profession.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.