Equity & Diversity Opinion

Why Teacher Equity Gaps Matter for Massachusetts, and How Research Helps

By Urban Education Contributor — January 25, 2018 4 min read
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This post is by Carrie Conaway (@clconaway), Chief Strategy and Research Officer, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (@MASchoolsK12).

Today’s post is the practitioner perspective on Monday’s post: Partnering to Assess Teacher Equity Gaps in Massachusetts.

Here in Massachusetts, we have high overall student outcomes but large gaps in achievement and growth for our most disadvantaged students. Our goal is success after high school for all students, and we believe that our greatest opportunity for getting more students to reach our goal lies in identifying strategies for closing these gaps.

It is clear from prior national research (see here, for example) that from an equity perspective, one of the most consequential decisions districts make is which teachers to assign to which students. Pairing a student with an outstanding educator can add weeks or months of learning each year, compared to pairing a student with a weak, or even average, teacher. That improvement in learning can have long-standing effects, ultimately increasing high school graduation rates, college enrollment, and wages.

If these national findings also hold true in Massachusetts, new strategies for assigning teachers to students and for improving the overall quality of teachers in Massachusetts would have strong potential to reduce our achievement gaps. But up until six months ago, we didn’t know if that was the case. We wondered: How big of an impact do our most effective educators make on their students? Are our disadvantaged students less likely to be assigned to the most effective educators? And what factors drive how students are assigned to teachers?

We have relatively strong research capacity in our agency, so we had begun to explore these issues through descriptive analysis. But we were missing two key components to advance our work: an accessible, independent summary of prior research demonstrating the large potential impact of focusing on equitable access, and analyses of Massachusetts-specific data demonstrating that the issue mattered in our context. These analyses would also need to use advanced statistical techniques to control for factors that might explain differences in access. With a document that included those two components, we’d be in a much better position to convince our districts of the need for focusing attention and resources on this issue.

Thankfully, we had already been partnering with the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data on Education Research (CALDER) at the American Institutes for Research on a stream of research related to educator preparation and licensure. CALDER already had the necessary data, the knowledge of the Massachusetts context, and the expertise on the broader national research on educator quality, so they were well positioned to produce this new document we envisioned.

We worked together with the research team to shape a policy brief on teacher equity gaps in Massachusetts. We learned that the 60th percentile teacher in Massachusetts raises student achievement by the equivalent of about one month of learning per year, relative to the median teacher—a substantial difference in student outcomes for a relatively small improvement in teacher quality. We also discovered that low-income students in Massachusetts are 31 percent more likely to be assigned to teachers with less than three years of experience and more than twice as likely to be assigned to a teacher evaluated as “needs improvement” or “unsatisfactory” relative to non-low-income students. About three-quarters of these gaps are driven by the fact that low income students are disproportionately enrolled in districts with lower average teacher effectiveness; about one-quarter is driven by choices districts make about how teachers are assigned to schools and students. In short, teacher equity gaps had real consequences for student outcomes in Massachusetts, and local and state policy interventions had the potential to improve the situation.

With this brief in hand, we are driving a policy conversation in our state that is informed by prior research and locally relevant data. The brief complements some secured reports we had previously built for districts to allow them to see the size of their local equity gaps for various student subgroups and dimensions of educator effectiveness. We have also created a network of districts focused on these issues so they can learn together about strategies that may improve equitable access, helping us identify promising initiatives to share more broadly. And because so much of the gap is driven by state-level factors, we have doubled down on our work to improve the overall quality of our educator workforce, such as initiatives to increase the effectiveness of novice educators.

Even in a state with a strong research team, we still need the independent expertise and analytical acumen of research partners to help us understand prior research, analyze how it pertains to our context, and reflect on and improve our work. Our partnership with CALDER is just one example of how we are using the insights we gain from research as a lever for closing our state’s achievement gaps and reaching our goal of success after high school for all our students.

The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice 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.