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Christian Buzzerd, a teacher at Triadelphia Ridge Elementary School in Ellicott City, Md., conducts a language arts class on Oct. 15, 2013. (Robert MacPherson/AFP/Getty Images) Christian Buzzerd, a teacher at Triadelphia Ridge Elementary School in Ellicott City, Md., conducts a language arts class on Oct. 15, 2013. (Robert MacPherson/AFP/Getty Images)  

Think Tank: Teacher Inequality Helps Drive Achievement Gap

The “achievement gap,” the consistent disparity between students of different racial and economic backgrounds in U.S. schools, is being perpetuated by inequality in the assignment of teachers, argues a new investigative report from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ).

The report focuses on public schools in Miami-Dade County during the 2012-13 school year, comparing standardized test scores in different regions with the experience levels of teachers assigned, as well as the racial distribution and poverty rates.

The data was obtained by looking at teacher distribution across the nine voting districts of Miami. Voting districts 1 and 2 are the city’s poorest districts, and have the highest number of black students. They also also have the worst-performing schools, containing 70 percent of Miami schools that earned a D or F rating on Florida’s accountability measures.

Despite being exceptionally challenging environments for teachers, NCTQ’s report found that the two districts were far more likely than any others to contain inexperienced teachers. Despite containing less than one quarter of the district’s students, a whopping 63 percent of rookie teachers in the district were placed in districts 1 and 2.

This distribution represents a significant potential shortfall for students, because inexperienced teachers typically underperform significantly relative to their peers. In Florida, students who have high-performing teachers for three years in a row finish over 50 percentiles higher on Florida’s standardized tests than students who have three low-performing teachers in a row. The result, NCTQ argues, is that poorer districts, already at a disadvantage, are further weighed down by having to work with substandard human capital.

A major cause to the imbalanced distribution, the investigation said, was the district’s decision to concentrate Teach for America teachers into the poorest schools. The concentration of TFA teachers into the districts inadvertently exacerbates the schools’ problems with experience, because most TFA participants teach for two years and then move on to other pursuits. As a result, the schools have far fewer teachers move up into the experienced ranks.

The lower quality of teachers in poor schools is apparent in other ways. Teachers in the two poorest districts were significantly less likely to be rated during evaluations as high effective, and they also had a higher number of absences per year, forcing the schools to rely more on substitute teachers.

NCTQ argues that Miami’s struggles reflect nationwide issues, and show that school districts must take corrective action to change the balance of teacher distribution. The number one solution they suggest: Pay teachers at struggling schools more, a lot more if necessary, and otherwise reward the sacrifices made by high-quality teachers in choosing lower-end schools.

If that isn’t enough, they argue, districts should consider implementing involuntary transfer programs in which schools with many low-performing teachers have them distributed elsewhere while high-performing teachers are transferred in. Such a policy, while heavy-handed, may be the only alternative in districts where labor laws make firing low-quality teachers difficult, they say.

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