Inequality in educational outcomes is substantial and persistent in the United States. Students from high-income families outperform those from low-income families on achievement tests, are more likely to graduate high school, and are more likely to earn a college degree. Black and Hispanic students also earn lower scores on standardized tests, on average, and are less likely to graduate high school and go to college than white and Asian students.
While there are many possible explanations for these differences, one frequent hypothesis is that high-income white and Asian students are taught by more effective teachers. After all, evidence shows that teachers vary a great deal in their impacts on student learning, and that students taught by the best teachers have higher test scores and better outcomes in adulthood, including greater likelihood of college attendance and higher wages.
Studies also have found that teachers working with low-income students, on average, tend to be less experienced and have fewer qualifications than teachers working in high-income communities. In response, federal law currently requires states to ensure low-income students “are not served at disproportionate rates by ineffective, out-of-field, or inexperienced teachers,” and states like Washington offer bonuses to teachers with advanced credentials who work in high-poverty schools. However, more experience and better qualifications do not guarantee better teaching.
In a new study from Education Next, researchers look at student demographics and several measures of teacher quality in 26 public school districts across the United States over a five-year period. They find that, in fact, low- and high-income students have nearly equal access to effective teachers. Effective teachers are found in high-poverty schools, even if their accomplishments are often overlooked because their students typically start out far behind. Conversely, ineffective teachers can be found in high-performing schools, where the impacts of subpar instruction can be camouflaged by students’ other advantages.
The analysis also suggests that it would take wholesale reassignment of the most effective teachers to the least advantaged students to substantially reduce inequities in learning outcomes, and that differences in the likelihood of low-income and minority students being taught by a novice teacher contribute a negligible amount to gaps in student achievement. The inequitable outcomes experienced by low-income and minority children may have less to do with their teachers and more to do with the supports and resources available to children of greater means.