Closing the teacher quality gap

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It's a logical progression from the student achievement gap to the teacher quality gap. Naturally it falls to the Education Trust to document the disparity, using the state of Texas as its laboratory. The results are predictably bad: "low income and minority students are less likely to be assigned to teachers who know their subject matter, less likely to be in classrooms with experienced teachers, and less likely to attend schools with a stable teaching force."

What wasn't as predictable is that these same gaps are also found in relatively homogeneous districts--districts that are almost entirely all poor and all minority. Edinburg, Texas, for example, a district that sits along the banks of the Rio Grande, reports a 25 percent higher teacher turnover rate in a school with a 94 percent poverty rate compared with another school, still abysmally poor, with a 72 percent poverty rate.

What are we to conclude? If we just make sure that poor kids get their fair share of good teachers, then perhaps we can fix the achievement gap? Not so fast. Coincidentally, another study is out this month on the same topic and finds there are no such relatively quick fixes.

New research published in Educational Researcher uses 8th grade student performance on the TIMSS international math assessment and surveys of their teachers to examine the impact of teacher credentials on student performance in 46 countries.

Of course, the US stands out for its teacher quality gap (4th out of 46), but not because disadvantaged students are more likely to be taught by a certified teacher but because they're more likely to be taught by a teacher who is not certified in the subject being taught.

As hard as it may be to get your hands around this concept, there isn't a linear relationship between teacher quality gaps and the achievement gaps reported by these 46 countries. Observes the report's authors, "Ensuring students' access to [qualified teachers] alone does not lead to a narrowed achievement gap." Exhibit A for this counterintuitive conclusion is Korea, whose low-SES students have disproportionately greater access to qualified teachers than more affluent students in Korea, but whose achievement gap is exactly the same as our own. Conversely, other countries do a poor job distributing their qualified teachers, but even controlling for economic wealth of the nation, still somehow report relatively small achievement gaps (e.g. Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia).

If teacher distribution is only part of the answer, what else needs to be considered? The missing pieces, theorize the researchers, is that other countries continue to provide training to teachers, credentialed or uncredentialed, after they get into the classroom, ameliorating any weaknesses that lack of teacher credentials may represent. Some countries also just do a better job making sure that all schools receive equal resources. Not mentioned by the researchers, but high on our list, is the presence of a national curriculum in other countries, the availability of which surely helps the struggling teacher. Once again, the old adage that for every complex problem there is one solution that is simple, neat, and wrong may hold true.