Placing Novice Teachers with Struggling Students Can Widen Gaps

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For years, research has shown that low-income students and students of color get fewer than their fair share of our best teachers. Whether measured by teacher experience, subject expertise, or effectiveness, the evidence clearly shows that these kids aren’t getting the same quality of teachers as their peers. Now, a new brief by Harvard’s Strategic Data Project finds that lower performing students are disproportionately placed in the classrooms of novice (first-year) teachers who, on average, tend to be less effective than teachers with several years of experience. Since such placement patterns can exacerbate existing achievement gaps, the authors question their logic.

Looking at math teachers in grades four through eight in four school districts, the authors find that, across each district, the students of novice elementary teachers lag, on average, approximately three to nine months behind the students placed with experienced teachers (those with four or more years of experience). In middle schools, the inequity is consistently larger, with the students of novice teachers performing close to nine to 10 months behind students whose teachers are more experienced.

Given that schools with low-performing students often have higher teacher turnover, the authors also looked at distribution within individual schools in each district. While they found more equitable assignment to novice teachers within a given school, low-performing students are still assigned to novice teachers at significantly higher rates than their peers. This is particularly true at the middle-school level, where tracking systems are more common.

While research has found that some novice teachers can be just as effective as veteran teachers, on average, first-year teachers just aren’t as effective as their more experienced peers. In the coming years, as more states implement more robust teacher evaluation systems, we will be able to better identify individual teachers’ effectiveness levels. However, even in many leading states, such systems won’t be implemented and ready to use to ensure equitable teacher assignment for several more years. In the meantime, states, districts, and schools should use the information they do have, including the assignment patterns of novice teachers, to ensure that the students farthest behind have teachers who can best help them move forward.

—Melissa Tooley