Teacher Preparation

Study Paints Sobering Picture of Unequal Access to Teacher Quality

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 13, 2015 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Any way you define teacher quality, disadvantaged students, academically struggling students, and nonwhite students get fewer good teachers, concludes a new study.

And at least in Washington state, where the study was conducted, those patterns were driven primarily by differences across districts, meaning that such students were more likely to attend districts with fewer high-quality teachers than their more-advantaged, white, and/or academically capable peers.

The study, published last month in AERA’s Educational Researcher, aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the inequitable distribution of teaching talent. It was written by Dan Goldhaber and Roddy Theobald of the American Institutes for Research and Lesley Lavery of Macalester College.

For the study, the researchers linked and analyzed teacher and student-level data from math and reading courses in Washington state in grades 3-10 in the 2011-12 school year. To measure teacher quality, they looked at the distribution of novices with two or fewer years of experience, each teacher’s score on his or her basic-skills test, and a value-added measure of teacher effectiveness. They also “decomposed” the scores to examine whether the disparities were due to distribution across districts, schools, or classrooms.

Here are some of the top-level findings:

• With just a few exceptions, the researchers found a teacher-quality gap across every combination of school level, an indicator of student disadvantage, and an indicator of teacher quality. (The exceptions were all with regard to licensing test scores and were for teachers of low-performing 4th graders; 9th grade algebra for all the student groups; and 10th grade reading for low-performing students.)

• The greatest gap was in 7th grade math: In that class, 19 percent of low-performing students were assigned to a teacher with a poor value-added estimate, compared to 7 percent of higher-performing students (possibly a function of academic tracking).

• Although much of the disparities were a function of districts, most of the combinations also showed an unequal distribution of talent across schools within a district, and half also showed an effect from an unequal distribution within a school.

• Flipping the script didn’t make the picture rosier: Disadvantaged students were even less likely to be taught by the highest-quality teachers than they were to be taught by a low-quality teacher.

To be clear, these findings aren’t especially shocking, since any number of other studies have found similar disparities (see here and here, for starters). What does stand out, thought, is their consistency across grade levels, subjects, and different ways of thinking about teacher quality.

There are obvious implications here on a number of levels. The maldistribution of talent across districts, for example, raises questions about attendance patterns and segregation.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education is currently pushing states to address teacher distribution, and each state submitted its plan last month. The problem, as my colleague Alyson Klein noted in her recent story, is that many states are hesitant to interfere in district-level policy given the complexities of collective bargaining, local school finance, and so forth.

I will leave you with this final thought from the researchers: “We doubt that anyone would argue that the current distribution of teacher quality--and specifically, the meaningful and policy-relevant teacher quality gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students that we document throughout this article--is in the best interests of all students.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.