The Key to Minority Student Achievement Might Be Teacher Training Quality
Districts with better teachers, and which use fewer teachers with temporary or substandard credentials, play a major role in narrowing student achievement gaps across racial and socio-economic lines.
That’s according to a new report from the Learning Policy Institute, an education research nonprofit founded by researcher Linda Darling-Hammond, who is also president of the California State Board of Education.
The report looked at how students at 435 of the biggest California districts performed on its statewide test, based on the national Smarter Balanced assessments, for three years beginning in 2015. It identified what the report authors call “positive outlier” districts, where students performed better than their peers of similar racial, educational and socioeconomic backgrounds in other California districts.
They found 167 such positive outlier districts where results were better for white and Hispanic students, and 48 districts where African American students performed better than expected.
Two factors examined by the researchers—total district enrollment and total school spending —did not significantly impact student achievement. But the amount of time teachers spent preparing for their jobs “as reflected by teacher certification status has a strong association with average achievement for all students,” they wrote.
Specifically, districts with low numbers of teachers with “substandard credentials”—which the report authors defined as emergency permits, waivers and intern credentials—achieved better results for all students regardless of race. (The report looked at Hispanic, African American and white students separately.)
Conversely, researchers noted that “after controlling for salaries and experience, the percent of teachers holding substandard credentials is significantly and negatively associated with student achievement.” They estimated that more than 10,000 of them were issued by the Teacher Credentialing Commission during the 2015-16 school year.
“There’s a lot of research out there saying teachers are the most important factor within schools contributing to achievement,” says Anne Podolsky, a researcher at Learning Policy Institute and a co-author of the report. “So in some respects it wasn’t necessarily a surprising finding because we were getting at teacher quality through credentials and experience.”
Podolsky cautions against reading too much into the results. But she did say there are takeaways for school leaders.
“You can’t necessarily say, ‘Teachers with substandard credentials are causing students to do worse,’” she says. “All we can say is that districts that have these high proportion of teachers with these substandard credentials just might be suffering from a working environment that isn’t conducive for students and teachers to stick around.”
The report acknowledges that districts in rural areas and those experiencing an acute teacher shortage may have difficulty retaining quality teachers, especially if those districts are in an already economically depressed area. With that in mind, Podolsky advises district officials to look into the issue on their own. “If you’re a superintendent, I would suggest tracking the number of teachers with substandard credentials in your district.”
Many of the positive outlier districts were located in the southern half of the state, possibly, as the report notes, because districts there tend to be larger and thus met the threshold for inclusion in the research. For districts to be included in the study, they needed to serve at least 200 white, 200 Hispanic and 200 African American students.
At the top of the pack for both African American and white student achievement was Chula Vista Elementary, located south of San Diego. For white and Hispanic achievement, Newhall School District, north of Los Angeles, scored exceptionally well. Large urban districts including San Diego Unified and Long Beach Unified were also highlighted for outperforming expectations.
The report was co-authored by researchers from the RAND Corp. and Stanford University.