In the summer of 2013, Seattle Public Schools adopted a five-year strategic plan that includes the laudable goal of ensuring educational excellence and equity for every student. The plan cites the “significant demographic achievement gap” in the district, and seeks to address this gap by calling for “an equitable distribution of resources that prioritizes the needs of students.”
Recognition of achievement gaps and calls to address them are not new. What is new is our capacity to identify the resources that contribute to or ameliorate these gaps. Compelling research over the last decade has shown that when it comes to in-school resources, teacher quality is what matters most. Unfortunately, Seattle has a long way to go toward ensuring that this crucial schooling resource is equitably distributed across students.
Teacher quality is hard to define and may mean different things to different people, but we don’t need to agree on a particular measure of quality to come to the conclusion that it is inequitably distributed across students. In fact, a variety of different measures show that disadvantaged students in Seattle Public Schools are less likely than their more advantaged peers to have access to a high-quality teacher.
As one example, students receiving free or reduced price lunch in Seattle’s seventh-grade math classrooms are more than twice as likely as their higher-income peers to be taught by a teacher with fewer than two years of experience (about 12 percent versus 5 percent of students).
This teacher-quality gap is not unique to middle-school math, or to this particular measure of teacher quality or student disadvantage. It shows up at the elementary- and high-school levels, when teacher quality is based on a value-added measure of teacher performance or credential exam scores, and when the comparisons are made between white students and historically disadvantaged minority students.