Getting serious about the teacher quality gap

A poor seventh-grader in the Tacoma School District is almost twice as likely as a more-advantaged seventh-grader to have an inexperienced math teacher.

This isn’t unique to Tacoma, nor is it unique to seventh grade. Nor is it unique to this particular measure of teacher quality or student disadvantage. It is systemic: Across Washington state public schools, substantial “teacher quality gaps” exist between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

The topic of educational achievement gaps and their implications for individual students and society is not new. What is new is our knowledge of the mechanisms that contribute to or ameliorate these gaps. One of these mechanisms is teacher quality, which research shows to be the most important in-school factor influencing student outcomes.

Providing disadvantaged students with high-quality teachers does not guarantee their schooling success, but it certainly goes a long way towards increasing the odds that they will do well school, go on to college and lead productive lives.

However, we haven’t made much progress in ensuring that disadvantaged students have the same access to high-quality teachers as advantaged students. The inequitable distribution of teachers is well-documented in other areas of the country, and we now have definitive evidence that teacher quality is inequitably distributed in our own backyard.

In a new Center for Education Data & Research report — “Uneven Playing Field” — (http://www.cedr.us/publications.html) – we calculate the probability that different subgroups of students are assigned to different kinds of teachers. Regardless of our measure of teacher quality or student disadvantage, when we find significant teacher quality gaps, they always favor advantaged over disadvantaged students.

Low-achieving, high-poverty and underrepresented minority students are significantly more likely to receive instruction from teachers with less experience, lower performance on required licensure tests and lower levels of value-added effectiveness.

While these teacher quality gaps are prevalent throughout the state, they are not universal. In some school districts, the distribution of teacher quality is much more equitable. For instance, contrary to the situation in Tacoma, high-poverty seventh-graders in the Federal Way School District are less likely than their low-poverty peers to have an inexperienced teacher.

Why do some districts do a better job than others at providing disadvantaged students with the same access to high-quality teachers as advantaged students? This is a complex question. The distribution of teacher quality in a district depends both on the way students are assigned to schools and the preferences of teachers for different teaching assignments.

What is clear is that education policies in Washington do little to address the teacher quality gaps that exist across the state. For example, teachers are generally paid according to a salary schedule that does not take into consideration the difficulty of the teaching assignment.

We need better information about teacher effectiveness and more incentives at the state level to help districts keep high-quality teachers in the schools serving the students that most desperately need them.

District policy is important, too. Locally negotiated collective bargaining agreements that govern assignment, transfers and many other important aspects of teachers’ jobs often include provisions guaranteeing that more senior teachers get the first shot at job openings within a district. Mounting evidence suggests that these sorts of policies are likely to exacerbate rather than ameliorate teacher quality gaps.

Of course, changing collective bargaining provisions can prove difficult: These provisions were a key point of contention in the recent teacher strike in Tacoma School District.

As the old saying goes, the first step in solving a problem is acknowledging that one exists, and it is clear that teacher quality gaps are a problem in Washington state. Will closing these teacher quality gaps eliminate student achievement gaps? Unfortunately the answer is probably not: The achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students have many causes, only some of which are under the control of public schools.

But teacher quality is a crucial resource that the public education system can influence, and the current distribution of teacher quality only widens the achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students in public schools.

It is time for the public education system to be part of the solution to educational achievement gaps and close the teacher quality gap in Washington state.

Dan Goldhaber is director of the Center for Education Data & Research at the University of Washington Bothell. Lesley Lavery is an assistant professor of political science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. Roddy Theobald is a doctoral candidate in statistics at the UW.