Doing Educational Equity Right: Effective Teachers

Good teaching matters, but where it happens matters most

Multi-racial inner city school students in classroom working on an assignment as the teacher watches over them.

This is the eighth in a series on doing educational equity right. See the introductory post, as well as ones on school finance, student discipline, advanced education,  school closures, homework and grading.

One of the ironclad beliefs among education reformers back in the day was the certainty that the achievement gap was caused, at least in part, by a teacher-quality gap. As articulated in the Education Trust’s landmark 1998 white paper Good Teaching Matters, by any measure you could come up with, the most qualified teachers were in the most-affluent schools, while the least qualified worked in the highest-poverty ones. This, more than anything else, is what we meant by “under-resourced” schools and was the result of our inequitable funding system, combined with HR systems and collective bargaining agreements that put the preferences of adults over the needs of kids—especially low-income students and students of color.

It wasn’t hard to figure out what caused this gap. The richest districts had more money and, therefore, could pay their teachers more. Even within districts, experienced teachers had first dibs on open positions. So when teachers retired, these veterans would claim open spots at the more affluent schools, where the job was perceived as easier, while the high-poverty schools were left to hire rookies.

Over the past twenty-five years, a growing body of research has complicated the picture.

Most significantly, we have learned that the attributes of teacher quality we could measure back then, like certification status or even years of experience, are weak proxies for effectiveness. There are some relationships between those markers and student outcomes, but they tend to be small and rather weak. One study estimated that 97 percent of what makes a teacher great is not measured by those sorts of inputs.

Another challenge is that the whole notion of an “effective teacher” might be shaky. It appears from some studies that teachers who are quite effective in some schools are less effective in others. The same thing goes when it comes to teaching students of different races. Lots of research has found that, all else being equal, Black teachers are more effective with Black students than their White counterparts are.

Perhaps all of this is why at least one reputable study found that the teacher effectiveness gap essentially does not exist, at least if we’re defining effectiveness as the ability to consistently boost student achievement.

Furthermore, our definition of teacher effectiveness is constrained by our ability to measure it. Most studies look at teachers’ impact on students’ growth in reading and math scores in grades three through eight. What about teachers that don’t teach reading and math? Or teach in kindergarten through second grade, or in high school? A few studies look at teachers’ impact on students’ grades, behavior, or graduation rates (after they leave their classrooms), but translating those studies into actionable data about millions of teachers is a nut we have yet to crack. So we don’t have an easy way to tell, for example, whether high-poverty schools have systematically lower quality social studies or art or music or PE teachers than more-affluent schools do. To figure that out, you would need a comprehensive and sophisticated teacher evaluation system.

None of this means we should despair. It is possible to attack the question of teacher effectiveness head-on and make sure that poor kids and kids of color get their fair share of the best instructors. Mostly, it means following the footsteps of Washington, D.C., where the IMPACT system has been designed to do exactly that. At its center is a set of sophisticated evaluations of teachers and their instruction—the type that went out of fashion after Race to the Top–era reforms mostly crashed and burned

Perhaps the best part of IMPACT is that it has been tweaked and improved over time. The district and its expert advisors identified the problem with judging teachers in very different schools against one another, an approach that originally disadvantaged teachers in the highest-poverty schools, as it made them look less effective than they really were. They fixed that problem while also maintaining high standards around instructional expectations, both in core subjects and beyond.

It’s not perfect, but IMPACT is miles ahead of anyone else’s evaluation system, and had a clear, positive effect on teacher effectiveness and diversity and student outcomes.

So for folks out there who say they are committed to educational equity and closing teacher effectiveness gaps, I would say: If you’re serious, you need to follow DCPS and put something like IMPACT in place in your district, as well. Otherwise, you are just virtue signaling.

The problem, of course, is that the politics of achieving such a bold reform are extremely difficult. The unions are dead set against it, as it’s their job to protect all their members, including mediocre and ineffective teachers. Unions also tend to be controlled by older teachers, who don’t want to be told that they need to leave their cushy jobs in the most affluent schools and go teach somewhere else. Not to mention that moving the best teachers to the poorest schools is not going to go over well with rich (and powerful) parents.

In the absence of something like IMPACT, then, we might have to settle for a half step in the right direction. Namely: Let the market do its magic. In this case, I refer to the labor market. Districts could pay teachers significantly more to teach in their toughest schools, as Houston is doing under state-appointed superintendent Mike Miles, while also making sure that the high-poverty schools have money in their budgets to pay for those more expensive teachers. Over time, as vacancies come up at such schools, we should expect to see great teachers migrate towards those campuses, at least if the extra pay is significant enough. We may not be able to measure those teachers’ effectiveness without an IMPACT-style system, at least not beyond teachers of reading and math in grades three through eight, but common sense would tell us that smart teachers are going to follow the money.

Which is not to say it’s easy to find the funding to dramatically boost teacher salaries in our neediest schools. But whether we are on the left, right, or center, we need to acknowledge that such efforts are what it takes to accomplish true educational equity. It’s time for all of us to put our money where our mouths are.

Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and an executive editor of Education Next.

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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