POLITICS
11/02/2016 04:12 pm ET

Proof You Shouldn't Blame Teachers For The Achievement Gap

New research finds that there are effective educators teaching students of all socioeconomic backgrounds.
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Teachers shouldn’t be held responsible for the big gap in the achievement levels of rich and poor students, new data suggests. 

By looking at the effectiveness ratings of teachers who work with students from varying socioeconomic classes, Mathematica Policy Research determined that rich and poor children generally have access to equally impressive educators. The research, which was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, stands in the face of arguments that a more equitable distribution of teachers could substantially move metrics of educational attainment. 

Affluent students outperform their low-income peers on meaningful educational benchmarks. They have higher high school graduation rates and higher standardized test scores. Policymakers have said in the past that teachers might influence this gap. Indeed, previous data shows that low-income students tend to have less access to experienced teachers

“We know from past research that there is a very large gap in achievement between high- and low-income kids, and we also know some teachers are quite a bit more effective than others,” said Eric Isenberg, senior researcher for Mathematica. “So we were interested in exploring whether there’s a link between those two things ― if achievement gaps could be explained by low-income kids having less effective teacher than high income kids.” 

It surprised me its just how little difference there is on average between teachers in those two groups of kids. Eric Isenberg, senior researcher for Mathematica

The study looked at effectiveness ratings for English language arts and math teachers in 26 districts over the course of five years. These teachers worked with students in the fourth through eighth grades.

Researchers used a value-added model to measure the effectiveness of a teacher. This statistical model is controversial in the education world ― Isenberg called it an “imperfect measure,” but he said it’s the best available option. This statistical technique is used to isolate how students’ test scores change from year to year, and how much a teacher is contributing to these changes. 

Although researchers did not work with a nationally representative sample of school districts, “the study districts were chosen to be geographically diverse, with at least three districts from each of the four U.S. Census regions,” the report says. About 63 percent of the students in the studied districts qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and the districts’ achievement gaps tend to reflect those at the national level. 

Overall, researchers only found small differences in the average effectiveness ratings given to teachers working with low-income and affluent students. The average teacher of a low-income student rates around the 50th percentile, while the average teacher of a more wealthy student rates around the 51st percentile. 

“It surprised me its just how little difference there is on average between teachers in those two groups of kids,” Isenberg said. “We’re limited to looking where we had data ... We’re open to the possibility there could be larger gaps in earlier grades or high school or other subjects, but still the fact is, we’re not seeing very strong differences in the effectiveness of teachers for these different types of kids.” 

A few studied districts stood out as outliers in the research. There were meaningful differences in quality of math teachers in three of them. Low-income students receiving equal access to effective teachers could close the achievement gap in these districts by a few percentile points, the study suggests.

If teacher effectiveness is not contributing to the achievement gap, Isenberg said, researchers should look at what other factors are affecting children. 

“I think the conventional wisdom is where you have a school with lower test scores, it must be the school or teachers,” he said. “It might be surprising that when we actually measure this, it’s not that the teachers is are actually less effective. Something else must be happening.” 

“Things going on at home or in those early years before kids enter school and inequality between different types of families” could be playing a role, he said. Indeed, there is already an achievement gap by the time students enter kindergarten

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Rebecca Klein covers the challenges faced in school discipline, school segregation and the achievement gap in K-12 education. In particular, she is drilling down into the programs and innovations that are trying to solve these problems. Tips? Email: Rebecca.Klein@huffingtonpost.com.

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