Experienced teachers are the common factor among 156 California school districts where black and Hispanic students, as well as white students, are beating the odds and scoring higher than expected on tests that measure higher-level critical thinking skills, according to new research from the Stanford University-based Learning Policy Institute (LPI).
“The research finds that providing students with qualified, fully prepared teachers is a critical component for raising student achievement,” said Anne Podolsky, lead author of “California’s Positive Outliers: Districts Beating the Odds,” who added that she believes the findings should show education policymakers “the importance of [educator] recruitment and retention.”
These findings are consistent with other research that points to the importance of a qualified, experienced teacher, and adds to the urgency around a growing U.S. teacher shortage, especially in high-poverty districts.
Like many states, California has struggled to hire highly qualified, experienced teachers for its classrooms. Last year, it issued nearly 5,000 “intern credentials” to teachers with just a few weeks of preparation, plus nearly 6,000 “short-term staff permits” that require no teacher training. The problem is particularly acute in high-poverty districts. In 2017, LPI found that two-thirds of the state’s principals in high-poverty schools left positions vacant or hired less-qualified teachers.
And California isn’t alone. An Arizona Republic investigation found that emergency teaching certifications in that state have increased 400 percent. Meanwhile, as Oklahoma schools opened this fall, state officials approved their 2,153rd emergency teaching certificate—up from 32 seven years ago. “Our growing number of emergency certifications is a symptom of a greater sickness—a sickness caused by chronic underfunding, a decade without raises and a culture of disrespect toward education,” said Oklahoma Education Association president Alicia Priest.
Over the past decade, the average teacher salary declined 4.5 percent. Growing frustration with too-low salaries, as well as too-large class sizes, neglected school facilities, outdated textbooks, and lack of resources has fueled recent educator strikes and work stoppages, and a national #RedforEd campaign by educators and allies.
Still, even as educators and their unions battle for more investment in public education, fewer college graduates are following in their footsteps. A 2016 national survey of college freshman found that the number of students who say they will major in education reached its lowest point in 45 years. Just 4.2 percent intend to become teachers.
This is the problem: A lack of experienced, well-qualified teachers impacts students. LPI found that for every 10 percent increase in the percentage of teachers holding substandard credentials, the average achievement of students of color is lower, on average, by almost 0.10 standard deviation. For white students, every 10 percent increase is associated with achievement that is nearly .07 standard deviations lower.
“For whatever reason, those districts with higher proportions of under-prepared teachers have lower achievement,” says Podolsky. “We can’t prove a causal relationship—it could be that you may be less prepared to work with students, or it could be several things. If a district has a lot of under-prepared teachers, there could be many things going on in that district.”
The report notes that “the places that are difficult for teachers to work in and students to learn in may feel they need to hire more teachers on substandard credentials because relatively few teachers want to work in the district.”
In its research, LPI controlled for many factors that often impact student achievement, such as household income and whether students’ parents have college degrees. Achievement was gauged using California standardized test results. More than 400 school districts were included in the study, of varying sizes and locations, all with at least 200 African American or Hispanic students, and at least 200 white students.
Among them, 54 California districts—with at least 2,000 students—have students of color who achieve much higher than predicted, researchers found. They call these the “positive outliers.” By their measure, Chula Vista Elementary is the top district in which both white and African-American students perform higher than expected. Among large districts, San Diego Unified and Long Beach Unified also had white and African-American students achieve higher than expected.
The research leads to additional questions: for example, do these districts have stronger unions, and more relevant educator-led professional development? Do they have more diverse faculties or close relationships with local colleges of education? Do educators here engage more frequently with families and communities?
Many of these factors, including curriculum and instruction, will be examined in a subsequent, deeper dive by Learning Policy Institute analysts into seven of the “positive outlier” districts. Those case studies will be released in coming months.