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Study: Novices Often Teach the Youngest, Neediest Students in Their Schools

By guest blogger Holly Yettick

Student tracking may attract more attention, but a new study sheds light on the ways in which teachers, too, can be assigned within schools in ways that sometimes resemble "ability grouping."

The study, presented Feb. 26 at the annual meeting of the Association for Education Finance and Policy, found that novice math teachers in an unnamed urban school district in the mid-Atlantic region were more likely to be assigned to the lower of grades of the elementary, middle and high schools where they worked and also to lower-achieving students and students with special needs.

The study examined teacher sorting within the same school as well as treading the more well-worn path of exploring ways in which more and less experienced teachers end up in one school versus another. While it is well-established that novices are more likely to teach at schools with higher percentages of low-income and minority students, within-school sorting also mattered, according to Rebecca Wolf, an education researcher at SRI International in Washington. Wolf conducted the research as a followup to her doctoral dissertation at the University of Maryland in College Park.

"While the between-school sorting of experienced math teachers was consequential, almost one-third of the variation in being assigned to a novice math teacher stemmed from teacher sorting within schools," Wolf wrote

When Wolf peered inside individual schools, she found that students in the lower grades of their schools were more likely to have novice math teachers. For instance, after accounting for demographics, achievement and academic track, Wolf found that ninth-graders were 10 percent more likely to have novice math teachers than were 12th graders in the same school. Wolf found similar patterns for sixth graders versus eighth graders in middle schools. These assignment patterns are problematic because the teachers were still getting the hang of their jobs while their students were negotiating their new school configurations, according to Wolf. 

Although experience isn't a perfect proxy for teacher effectiveness, teachers do tend to perform better after their first few years on the job. And there are reasons to be concerned about clustering novices teachers at the transitional years: Research shows that bullying tends to intensify during middle school, and it identifies 9th grade as a particularly tough year for students academically.

Additionally, low-achievers who were in the lower grades of their schools were especially likely to have novice math teachers. As a result, students with the highest needs had math teachers with the least experience.

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Wolf's study included upwards of 100,000 students who attended more than 150 regular public schools during the 2009-10 school year in the urban district, which is majority African-American and approximately 20 percent Hispanic. She defined novice math teachers as those with less than three years of experience.

In addition to concluding that younger students were more likely than older students within the same school to be assigned to novice math teachers, Wolf also found that, districtwide, special education students, and English language learners had a disproportionate share of novice math teachers. Even within a single school, a student who was an English learner or special needs student was more likely to be assigned to a novice math teacher than was a peer who did not fall into those categories. 

The trend was even more pronounced among English-language learners who were in the lowest grades at their schools: Half of ninth-grade English learners had novice math teachers.

By contrast, students in Advanced Placement courses were less likely to have novice math teachers. And white teachers were more likely to teach higher-achieving students.

"These results indicate that leaders and policymakers should address inequitable sorting of teachers within schools—particularly in the transition years to middle or high school—to minimize student disengagement and inequitable student outcomes," concluded Wolf.

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