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New Teacher Placement, Retention Can Exacerbate Achievement Gaps

It's well-known that novice teachers are, on average, less effective at the very start of their careers and most likely to leave the profession in their first three years on the job. Yet the latest in a series indicators of school district effectiveness by Harvard University's Strategic Data Project at its Center for Education Policy Research show many districts do not know how to place and retain these teachers to help them succeed.

This morning, the project released analyses of the placement and retention patterns of novice mathematics teachers in Charlotte-Mecklenberg schools in North Carolina, Fort Worth schools in Texas, and Fulton and Gwinnett counties' schools in Georgia, from 2004-2005 to 2009-2010.

The study shows first-year teachers get thrown into the deep end. Across all four districts, which together serve more than 465,000 students, the researchers found new elementary teachers were assigned students who had performed .1 to .3 of a standard deviation below their peers who were assigned to teachers with four years of experience or more—meaning that these students were about three to nine months of schooling behind their classmates.

"Education leaders are probably not strategically planning to put their lowest-performing students with their least-experienced teachers, but that is the result we are finding," said Sarah Glover, the data project director, in a telephone briefing this morning with reporters.

New middle school teachers were given students who had performed as much as 10 months behind, or .35 of a standard deviation on the prior year's math test. These math teachers, who likely still were perfecting how to handle a classroom and develop their lesson plans, also had to cope with students more than a full grade level behind.

"The systematic placement of novice teachers with lower-performing students is essentially a 'double whammy' for these students," the researchers concluded. Both across districts and within individual schools, the researchers found students who most need an instructor who can catch them up quickly instead have the teachers most likely to sustain their achievement gaps.

Moreover, the project's analysis of a second indicator, on retention patterns, found districts did not effectively keep the beginner teachers who showed the most promise. Looking again at 3rd to 8th grade math teachers from 2004 to 2010, the researchers divided teachers into thirds based on the value they added in improving students' math scores—thus taking into account differences in effectiveness among the newest teachers.

The districts studied did tend to keep more first-year teachers from the top third than the bottom third of effectiveness. While individual schools kept significantly more of the top-tier than bottom-tier teachers in their first three years, the district level retention rates were not much different and "virtually indistinguishable" in the second and third years of new teachers' careers.

"While this could reflect teachers seeking out environments in which they are more likely to be effective," the researchers noted, "it may also reflect a placement pattern in which relatively ineffective teachers are passed around the district rather than being dismissed altogether."

At the briefing with reporters this morning, Marty West, an assistant professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, said the results point to the need for districts to take a closer look at who they keep and lose both in individual schools and the district as a whole. "The overall teacher retention rate, which many districts already use, is not a particularly useful piece of information," Mr. West said. "When it comes to student achievement, not all teacher retention is the same."

Some schools do a better job than others of encouraging effective teachers to stay and "counseling out" teachers who do not improve over time, the report found.

The Strategic Data Project, backed by a $15 million grant by the Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (which also supports Education Week's coverage of business and innovation), has been developing common indicators of school district health which can be compared across districts and states. Previous indicators have highlighted teacher hiring practices and college-going rates of graduates from different schools, among others.

"Research tells us that a teacher's effectiveness has more impact on students than any other factor controlled by school systems," Ms. Glover said. "So districts should examine all of their available data to inform how they support the best resource they have to improve student outcomes: their teachers. These findings can help education leaders fine-tune their teacher retention efforts and consider how to place teachers strategically to meet student needs."

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