In the summer of 2013, Seattle Public Schools adopted a five-year strategic plan that includes the laudable goal of ensuring educational excellence and equity for every student. The plan cites the “significant demographic achievement gap” in the district, and seeks to address this gap by calling for “an equitable distribution of resources that prioritizes the needs of students.”
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Recognition of achievement gaps and calls to address them are not new. What is new is our capacity to identify the resources that contribute to or ameliorate these gaps. Compelling research over the last decade has shown that when it comes to in-school resources, teacher quality is what matters most. Unfortunately, Seattle has a long way to go toward ensuring that this crucial schooling resource is equitably distributed across students.
Teacher quality is hard to define and may mean different things to different people, but we don’t need to agree on a particular measure of quality to come to the conclusion that it is inequitably distributed across students. In fact, a variety of different measures show that disadvantaged students in Seattle Public Schools are less likely than their more advantaged peers to have access to a high-quality teacher.
As one example, students receiving free or reduced price lunch in Seattle’s seventh-grade math classrooms are more than twice as likely as their higher-income peers to be taught by a teacher with fewer than two years of experience (about 12 percent versus 5 percent of students).
This teacher-quality gap is not unique to middle-school math, or to this particular measure of teacher quality or student disadvantage. It shows up at the elementary- and high-school levels, when teacher quality is based on a value-added measure of teacher performance or credential exam scores, and when the comparisons are made between white students and historically disadvantaged minority students.
Seattle is not alone. A new Center for Education Data & Research (CEDR) report shows that teacher-quality gaps that exist in Seattle are prevalent throughout much of Washington. Unfortunately, this uneven playing field means that many of the students who arrive at school behind the curve, and have fewer educational resources outside of school, are not going to catch up while in school. Instead, the current allocation of teacher quality only exacerbates the achievement gaps that exist at the beginning of kindergarten and grow as students progress through the K-12 public school system.
Closing the teacher-quality gap is unlikely to eliminate student achievement gaps as many of the factors that influence student achievement – health, neighborhoods, poverty and the like – are outside the control of schools. But surely the fact that schools cannot address all the factors that affect student achievement does not mean that school systems should not take action when they can. The new state law mandating more nuanced teacher evaluation systems is a good start because any effort to close the teacher-quality gap relies on identifying the most effective teachers.
But we must do more to encourage these high-quality teachers to stay in or move to our most disadvantaged schools. For instance, while districts in Washington generally determine a teacher’s compensation with a salary schedule that ignores the difficulty of his or her teaching assignment, some districts in other parts of the country have started offering substantial bonuses to teachers who teach in disadvantaged schools, and these differentiated compensation systems have been shown to keep high-quality teachers in the schools that need them the most.
If Seattle and other districts want to live up to the goal of educational excellence and equity for all students, we urge them to consider differentiated compensation systems that recognize differences between teaching assignments and help close the teacher-quality gap in our schools.
Dan Goldhaber is the director of the Center for Education Data & Research and a professor at the University of Washington Bothell, Lesley Lavery is an assistant professor at Macalester College, and Roddy Theobald is a research assistant at UW Bothell.