TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

To do right by students with disabilities, principals need better tools

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Six months ago, back when children still sat in classrooms and spent most days with their teachers, LA Unified School District reached a milestone. For the first time since 1996, the district fully controlled its special education system. Recognizing improvements in graduation rates, suspension rates, and other outcomes, a federal court lifted a consent decree designed to protect the district's students with disabilities.

Like so many districts around the country, LAUSD has shown progress in supporting students with learning disabilities—but still has a ways to go. A recent study from CALDER provides some insight into how a lack of information may contribute to the challenge of achieving equitable outcomes for students with and without disabilities.

From 2014-2018, Ijun Lai, W. Jesse Wood, Scott Imberman, Nathan Jones, and Katharine Strunk gathered data to measure whether students in LAUSD were assigned to teachers of the same quality regardless of students' disability status. To measure teacher quality, the researchers looked at teacher evaluation scores, years of experience, and a value-added measure (VAM) constructed solely for the purpose of this study.

The good news is that the researchers did not identify meaningful gaps in teacher quality based on the measures most readily available to principals: teacher evaluation scores and years of experience. The bad news is that researchers did identify teacher quality gaps on the less available VAM scores, with students with disabilities disproportionately assigned to teachers who performed less well on these researcher-constructed measures.

These findings suggest that while principals may think that they are assigning teachers without regard to disability based on the information available to them, students with disabilities may still find themselves assigned to lower-performing teachers. For districts, this means that principals need better data for tracking teacher performance and crafting classroom rosters. That's hardly a revolutionary idea, yet the practice remains remarkably uncommon.