TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

An equity decision: Which teachers choose to teach which students?

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Every child deserves access to effective teachers, and teachers vary in their effectiveness. Two new working papers look into how teachers select or are selected into positions based on their preferences and those of the principals hiring them. The papers revisit the question of how employment preferences relate to students' access to effective teachers—primarily students of color or those who are living in poverty.

In the first study, Michael D. Bates (UC Riverside), Michael Dinerstein (University of Chicago), Andrew Johnston (UC Merced), and Isaac Sorkin (Stanford University) examine teacher characteristics and both teacher and principal preferences, among other aspects of the hiring process (postings, timing, etc.). Their research finds that teachers prefer schools with more economically advantaged student populations and that teachers who teach in these schools look better on paper (based on credentials such as master's degrees, experience, etc.). However, the study finds that these teachers who "look better on paper" do not necessarily contribute more to student learning (as measured by value added scores). The authors investigate the potential reasons and conclude that principals hire teachers whom they expect will be effective based on their credentials, but this expectation does not always translate to teachers who are effective in the classroom. This, of course, is not a new finding and is supported by years of research that has found little correlation between credentials and effectiveness.

On a more positive note, however, the researchers were able to identify opportunities to improve student outcomes. Specifically, they find that some teachers are more effective at teaching students of color or those living in poverty compared to other student populations, as well as compared to other teachers. Taking steps to attract teachers to schools with the groups of students with whom they can produce the larger gains could lead to more equitable student outcomes. The researchers find that paying teachers more to work in some schools is an effective means to achieve this, but also suggest that practices that improve working conditions, like greater principal support, could help draw teachers to the students with whom they are relatively more effective.

related study by Jessalynn James (TNTP) and James Wykoff (University of Virginia) evaluates how differences in rates of free and reduced lunch and enrollment of Black and Hispanic students relate to teacher experience. Specifically, when students are more segregated within or between neighboring districts, are there greater differences in teacher characteristics between these schools? The analysis finds that novice teachers are more likely to be employed by schools with a greater percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunch and/or Black and Hispanic students when segregation is more prevalent. Moreover, the likelihood of more novice teachers in a school increases as the enrollment of Black and Hispanic students increases.

The pandemic has exacerbated the achievement gap between economically advantaged students and disadvantaged ones, so it is critical for states and districts to strategically use the tools they have available to attract teachers who can best support vulnerable students. To do so, states and districts need a clear picture of whether vulnerable students have equitable access to effective teachers. The Every Student Succeeds Act acknowledged this need and mandated states to collect and report data documenting the equitable distribution of their teacher workforce, but states could do much more than they have to date. States still lack much of the data needed to assess whether or not students have equitable access to effective teachers. To reach the goal that students furthest from opportunity have effective teachers, we need to start by understanding who their teachers are now.