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Middle Schools May Bear Brunt of Uneven Teacher Distribution

The highest-performing teachers appear to be underrepresented in economically disadvantaged middle schools—but the pattern is less pervasive at the elementary level, concludes a study of 10 districts released today.

The study, released by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences, analyzed value-added test-score data drawn from the 10 districts, which cover 723 schools and more than 11,000 teachers in all. Eight of the districts are participating in the IES-funded Talent Transfer Initiative research project, which I wrote a bit about in this story.

The researchers calculated value-added estimates for all of the elementary school teachers, as well as middle school reading and math teachers. Then, they identified the top 20 percent of teachers in each subject and grade span that got the greatest gains for students.

Next, they put each district's schools into poverty quintiles and examined which schools had the most top teachers.

The greatest disparities emerged for middle school math and reading. On average, 29 percent of the top middle school math teachers worked in the lowest-poverty schools, while 15 percent taught in the highest-poverty schools.

At the individual district level, there were differences in those patterns. Some had no major differences between high- and low-poverty schools in the proportion of the most effective teachers, while others had disparities. One district had a whopping gap for middle school math teachers, with 62 percent of the top teachers in the lowest-poverty schools compared with just 6 percent in the highest-poverty schools.

Of the 10 districts, eight also had information on elementary schools. There, the distribution patterns were less clear-cut: On average, there was no statistically significant difference between the highest- and lowest-poverty schools' proportions of top teachers.

At the individual district level, however, four of the eight districts had more top-performing teachers at low-poverty schools. But in at least one district, the number of highly effective teachers was actually much greater at the highest-poverty schools.

The districts range from 40 percent to 100 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

The scholars point out that the findings can't be extrapolated from the 10 districts to apply to the nation, but they are certainly suggestive. And they're interesting to consider in light of another study, put out by the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, on where highly effective teachers are located.

That study, based on data from North Carolina and Florida schools, found that schools serving primarily poor students do have some great teachers, but that, overall, the talent spread is wider in such schools than in more-affluent schools. Read more about it here.

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