Maybe There’s No “Teacher Quality Gap” After All

It’s taken as an article of faith in the education reform community: we’re screwing poor kids by giving them less effective teachers than their more affluent peers enjoy. The evidence seems pretty much open-and-shut. Poor schools are home to more rookie teachers, those with less subject-matter knowledge, lower certification exam scores, you name it.

And based on this evidence, Education Trust and others have been pushing for years for efforts to redistribute effective teachers from rich schools to poor ones. Lots of Race to the Top points depend on states coming up with strong plans for doing so.

But what if it’s not true? In a brand-new Education Next forum, Eric Hanushek and Kati Haycock square off on the question of teacher equity. These two have teamed up on teacher issues for over a decade, yet they come to different conclusions about whether the teacher quality gap even exists. Note Hanushek’s  equivocal response to the question, “What is the evidence that inner-city schools are shortchanged on high-quality teachers?”

Inner-city schools and especially those serving the most disadvantaged students rou­tinely display unacceptable achievement levels, ones that seal their students off from further education and from good jobs. Coupled with the general finding that effective teachers are the key to a high-quality school, it is natural to infer that the children most in need are systematically getting the poorest teachers.

Unfortunately, direct evidence on the distribution of teacher quality and its impact for disadvantaged students is hard to come by. Researcher Marguerite Roza and others have produced considerable evi­dence that teachers in schools serving the most-disadvantaged students have lower average salaries, reflecting in large part the movement of more-experienced teachers away from schools with a higher proportion of minority students and with lower-achieving students. There is also evidence that these schools tend to have more teachers with emergency credentials and without regular certi­fication, although this appears to be declining over time. The problem is that these readily measured attributes of teachers have virtually nothing to do with teacher effectiveness.

Extensive research on teacher quality by me and others suggests that the only attri­bute of teacher effectiveness that stands out is being a rookie teacher. Teachers in their first three years do a less satisfactory job than they will with more experience. And this has an impact on schools serving highly dis­advantaged populations, because the more-experienced teachers who leave these schools are generally replaced with new teachers. The net impact of this on disadvantaged schools is unclear, because there is also some evi­dence that the experienced teachers who leave these schools are on average not their most effective teachers.

Read between the lines and you’ve got to wonder why we’re embarking on an expensive, and potentially futile, effort to move thousands of teachers from one kind of school to another. The argument is intuitively appealing, but appears to rest on shaky ground.

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