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Shawn Vestal: Students who need teachers most are least likely to get higher-skilled ones

There’s a lot of research in education that suggests the single most important factor in students’ academic success is the teacher.

And there’s a growing amount of research suggesting the students who need a great teacher the most – students in poverty, students of color, students who are performing worse than their peers – are less likely to have one. A recent study published by a pair of University of Washington researchers, funded in part by the Gates Foundation, undertook a comprehensive analysis of teacher quality and student access in Washington state and found that our “teacher quality gap” is stubborn and widespread.

“Across nearly every combination of school level, student disadvantage indicator, and indicator of low teacher quality, the teacher quality gap is significant and positive; that is, disadvantaged students (regardless of definition) are more likely to have a low-quality teacher (regardless of definition) than are non-disadvantaged students in the same grade level,” the researchers wrote.

They cited several reasons for this: principals may reward good teachers with “favorable” classes; teachers are much more likely to transfer out of disadvantaged schools; and new teachers are more likely to apply to districts with fewer disadvantaged students.

The paper, titled “Uneven Playing Field? Assessing the Teacher Quality Gap Between Advantaged and Disadvantaged Students,” was published in the journal Educational Researcher in the June-July issue. The authors were Dan Goldhaber and Roddy Theobald of the UW, and Lesley Lavery of Macalester College.

The researchers used four databases from the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, linking students’ test performance and their teachers in reading and math in the 2011-12 school year. They applied three difference measures to define teacher quality, and three to define “disadvantage” in students: those who qualify for free lunch (40 percent of Washington students); minority students (24 percent); and students who scored in the bottom fifth of their cohort in previous tests.

Then they considered the question of teacher access in several ways.

How likely were disadvantaged students to have a novice teacher with less than two years of experience? In fourth-grade classrooms, students who received free lunch were 25 percent more likely than others to have a rookie; minority students were 41 percent more likely.

These gaps persisted in other grades and subject to subject, though they varied in size. Researchers looked at the “value-added model” for evaluating teacher effectiveness, which is an estimate of the direct impact a teacher has on student learning gains. Students who performed the worst in previous years had almost a 20 percent chance of being taught by a teacher with low prior VAM estimates, compared to 7.3 percent for higher-performing students.

In other words, according to these measures, students who needed the most help were three times more likely to have teachers who had shown less ability to help them improve.

Researchers also looked at how likely disadvantaged students were to have a high-quality teacher and found an even larger gap: “disadvantaged students may be more likely to be taught by a low-quality teacher, but they are even less likely to be taught by a high-quality teacher,” the authors concluded.

Mary Templeton, the director of certificated personnel for Spokane Public Schools, said the district has been “aggressively” going after the issue of teacher quality in many different ways: at the hiring stage, where they’re working to increase the number of “highly qualified teachers,” as defined under federal law; with a database that tracks student progress on an individual level, which also helps identify areas where teachers can improve; by partnering with local universities to improve training and grow the pool of strong applicants to hire from; and in other ways.

“The quality of the teacher in the classroom is the biggest predictor of student achievement,” she said. The district is continually asking, “How do you verify that every teacher coming into the classrooms is of the highest quality?”

One way to try to keep teachers in tough classrooms is money. Teachers who are certified by the National Board – seen as a mark of high achievement – are offered a stipend for working in “challenging” schools. If this mattered enough to us as a society, we would do more of that, because it seems to work: The researchers cite a study showing that even modest bonuses decreased teacher turnover in poor districts.

But Templeton notes that money is only one factor in attracting teachers to the challenging schools. She worked at Rogers High School as it underwent a remarkable turnaround recently, with dramatic improvements in the graduation rate and number of college-bound students. For many educators involved in that effort, it has been the sense of mission – the “moral imperative” to help the students – that kept them motivated, she said.

“Teaching is hard,” she said. “It’s hard. But it’s the most important thing we do.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.