Teacher Quality Important, But Cannot Overcome Poverty

K-12 Testing
A recent report from the pro-standardized testing organization Education Trust confirms that low-income and minority students are "shortchanged on teacher quality." For example, students in high-poverty schools are more likely to have novice teachers and less likely to have teachers with strong subject-area backgrounds than students in low-poverty schools. Ed Trust correctly uses this information to argue for better qualified teachers in high-poverty and high-minority areas. But the group goes beyond the evidence to attack those who maintain that schools alone cannot overcome the effects of poverty.


In fact, the data Education Trust used show that less than one third of the achievement gap would be closed by having top-quality teachers. Moreover, because state tests do not measure higher order learning, closing the state test-score gap probably overstates the actual improvement in real learning. And economic inequalities between districts continue to put high-poverty urban and rural areas at a disadvantage in hiring stronger teachers.


The Illinois data on which Education Trust relied was compiled by the Illinois Education Research Council (IERC). IERC calculated a Teacher Quality Index (TQI), then used it to divide teachers into four groups. IERC says that in low-income schools, those where 50-89% of students received free or reduced-price lunches, 44 % of the elementary school students with the bottom 10% of the teachers met or exceeded the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) standards. The pass rate jumped to 56% in low-income schools with the strongest teachers.


In the very poorest elementary schools (90-100% free or reduced-price lunch), the gains appear roughly similar. However, there are so few very poor schools with highest-rated teachers that precise gains could not be calculated - itself a sadly important finding. In the wealthiest schools, 78% of students with the weakest 25% of teachers passed, as did 84% with the strongest teachers.


However, based on projections from the IERC data, if all students had weak teachers, the gap by income would be 34%; and if all had strong teachers, the gap would be 28%. That is, if all students had strong teachers the predicted achievement gap would shrink by six percentage points, less than one quarter of the closure needed to attain equal scores.


In high school, having stronger teachers has an even more powerful effect on low-income students, narrowing the rich-poor margin by about one-third. But a gap of an estimated 30 points remains.


As is too common, the only student outcomes evaluated in this study is test scores. It is likely that students in wealthier areas have a much greater opportunity to learn educationally valuable higher-level thinking skills not measured by the ISAT.


ET Misuses Evidence
The IERC report concludes, "higher TQI helps, but does not level the playing field with regard to challenges that schools with high poverty face." This vital point is not found in the Education Trust report. Instead, the group writes, "Although research [shows that] teachers are the single most important factor in how much students learn, too many people…cling to the myth that factors outside of school override anything teachers can do. This myth, which survives because of its appeal to underlying assumptions about race and class, not only demeans the contribution of teachers, but prevents meaningful change by excusing what should not be excused."


But that is not what the evidence demonstrates. The data do show that teachers make a significant difference. But even having all high-quality teachers would not overcome the inequities. Rather than a balanced approach, Education Trust continues to blame educators for not solving what the nation as a whole has avoided addressing directly - race and class inequities.


The ET report Teaching Inequality is at http://www2.edtrust.org


The IERC report is at http://ierc.siue.edu/documents/Teacher%20Quality%20IERC%202005-2.pdf