Disadvantaged Kids Need Equal Access to Great Teachers

Kevin Mahnken, writing for The 74, recently reviewed a new working paper by the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Resear (CALDER). The study, conducted by CALDER director and University of Washington professor Dan Goldhaber, synthesizes two separate research topics: the influence of teacher quality on student achievement, and the inequities in access to excellent teachers that persist along racial and class lines.

Differences in the quality of elementary and middle school teachers can explain much of why disadvantaged students perform worse in math than their whiter, more affluent schoolmates, according to this working paper. The authors caution, however, that our understanding of teachers’ effects on students depends on how we measure teacher quality.

Roughly one-sixth of white students’ edge over their minority classmates in eighth-grade math tests is due to simply having better teachers, the authors conclude, and over one-fifth of the gap between poor and non-poor students is also traceable to teacher quality.

Voluminous research published over several decades has shown that low-income and minority students have less access to high-quality teachers, regardless of whether “quality” is defined by traditional qualifications – years of experience, possession of an advanced degree, performance on teacher certification exams – or by the somewhat controversial measure of “value added,” which tracks the impact of instructors on student test scores.

Goldhaber and his co-authors examined student-level data from the state of Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction between the 2006–07 and 2015–16 school years. They linked students to their classroom instructors between the fourth and eighth grades, and then examined their performance on eighth-grade math exams. To introduce a new area of inquiry, they also looked at which students later took advanced math classes (precalculus and above) in high school.

Ultimately, they find the importance of teacher quality to be significant. If black, Hispanic, and Native American students and white students had equivalent teachers in grades four through eight, gaps in eighth-grade math performance would shrink by 16 percent; gaps between students based on eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch (a common measure of student poverty) would be 21 percent smaller.

Even more striking, a full 33 percent of the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students in advanced high school math courses can be attributed to teacher assignment.


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For the working paper, see: