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Value Added of Teachers in High-Poverty Schools and Lower-Poverty Schools

Tim Sass, Jane HannawayZeyu Xu, David Figlio, Li Feng
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Document date: November 16, 2010
Released online: December 02, 2010


Differences in teacher quality would appear to be the most likely reason for disparities in the quality of high-poverty and lower-poverty schools. However, the linkages between teacher quality and socio-economic-based disparities in student achievement are quite complex. Using data from North Carolina and Florida, this paper examines whether teachers in high-poverty schools are as effective as teachers in schools with more advantaged students. Bottom teachers in high-poverty schools are less effective than bottom teachers in lower-poverty schools. The best teachers, by comparison, are equally effective across school poverty settings. The gap in teacher quality appears to arise from the lower payoff to teacher qualifications in high-poverty schools.  In particular, the experience-productivity relationship is weaker in high-poverty schools and is not related to teacher mobility patterns. Recruiting teachers with good credentials into high-poverty schools may be insufficient to narrow the teacher quality gap. Policies that promote the long-term productivity of teachers in challenging high-poverty schools appear key.

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Whether measured by student achievement or educational attainment, the divergence in student performance between schools serving primarily low-income populations and those enrolling students from more affluent families is stark. In 2009, only 14 percent of 4th grade students from high-poverty schools scored at or above the "proficient" level in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), whereas half the students in low-poverty schools met or exceeded the threshold for proficiency. Similarly, in math just 17 percent of students from high-poverty schools scored at the proficient level or above on the NAEP while 60 percent of students from low-poverty schools performed at the proficient level or better.

The differences are even larger for students in large cities, where the proportion of students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch (FRL) who earn a proficient score in either math or reading is lower than for FRL students in the rest of the nation (Uzzell et al. 2010). Twelfth-grade students in high-poverty schools are also less likely to earn a high school diploma than their counterparts from low-poverty schools (68 versus 91 percent) and are less likely to attend a four-year college (28 percent versus 52 percent) (Aud et al. 2010). Correspondingly, nearly 90 percent of so-called "dropout factories," where fewer than 60 percent of high-school freshman are still attending the same school in grade 12, are schools serving large numbers of lowincome students. The majority of these schools with low graduation rates are located in the nation's cites (Balfanz and Legters 2005). In half of the 100 largest cities in the United States 50 percent or more of high school students attend "dropout factories" (Balfanz and Legters 2004).

While student, parental and neighborhood factors undoubtedly contribute to the observed performance differential between students in low and high-poverty schools, it is hard to deny that systematic differences in school quality are partly to blame for the observed gaps in achievement and educational attainment. The source of quality differentials between schools serving primarily low-income students and those serving more affluent students, and hence the appropriate policies to ameliorate differences in school quality, are less clear, however.

Differences in teacher quality would appear to be the most likely reason for disparities in the quality of high-poverty and lower-poverty schools. Recent empirical evidence finds teachers to be the most important schooling factor affecting student achievement. Rockoff (2004), Rivkin, Hanushek, and Kain (2005) and Aaronson, Barrow, and Sander (2007) show that persistent measures of teachers' contributions to student achievement or "value added" vary tremendously across teachers, and that the within-school variation in value added is at least as large as between-school variation. Similarly, Figlio and Lucas (2004) demonstrate that within-school variation in grading standards (and presumably other teacher behaviors as well) is nearly the same as the overall variation in grading standards.

Previous research has also highlighted disparities in the qualifications of teachers in schools serving primarily disadvantaged and minority students versus teachers in schools with more advantaged student bodies (Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor 2005; Goldhaber, Choi, and Cramer 2007; Lankford, Loeb, and Wyckoff 2002). However, while observed teacher characteristics (e.g. educational attainment, certification status, years of experience beyond the first few years, etc.) vary across schools, these differences are only weakly related to teacher performance (Harris and Sass 2007; Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor 2007).

Several recent studies also clearly establish that schools serving disadvantaged students have more difficulty hiring and retaining teachers. Teachers in general appear to prefer schools that serve students from higher income families and who are higher-achieving, and teachers working in schools with more highly disadvantaged students are more likely to leave their school district or transfer to a lower-needs school within their district (Lankford, Loeb, and Wyckoff 2002; Hanushek, Kain, and Rivkin 2004; Boyd, Lankford, Loeb, and Wyckoff 2005; Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor 2005; Imazeki 2005; Scafidi, Sjoquist, and Stinebrickner 2007; Feng 2009). Accountability pressures can exacerbate the problems that schools serving low-achieving student populations face in retaining high-quality teachers (Feng, Figlio, and Sass 2010). Teachers with better earning opportunities are also more likely to leave teaching (Dolton and van der Klaauw 1999), which might make it even harder for schools in economically disadvantaged area to hold on to good teachers. It may also be harder for these schools to recruit teachers to begin with, as potential teachers tend to prefer to work in schools near where they grew up (Boyd et al. 2005).

The combination of evidence on the importance of teacher quality, differences in observable qualifications of teachers across schools, and the mobility patterns of teachers has led many observers to conclude that the quality of teachers in high-poverty schools is generally inferior to that of teachers in lowerpoverty schools. This view has fueled policy initiatives designed to encourage promising new teachers to teach in high-poverty schools ("Teach for America") and provide incentives for existing teachers to move from lowerpoverty schools to high-poverty schools. For example, the recent "Race-to-the-Top" competition graded applicants in part on whether they had plans to provide financial incentives to teach in high-poverty schools.1 Similarly, the U.S. Department of Education has funded a set of experiments in seven school districts throughout the country, known as the "Talent Transfer Initiative" that provide differential compensation to highly effective teachers who agree to teach in high-poverty schools.

Despite the circumstantial evidence, in fact little is known about the relative productivity of teachers in schools serving economically disadvantaged student populations and those enrolling students from more affluent families. In this paper we seek to fill this void and inform the debate on teacher labor market policies by addressing four related research questions:

  1. How does the average contribution of teachers in high-poverty elementary schools compare to that of teachers in lower-poverty elementary schools in terms of student achievement gains in mathematics and in reading/language arts?
  2. Are there differences in the variation of teacher effectiveness within schools serving largely students from low-income families vis--vis the set of schools serving more affluent populations?
  3. To what extent do observed teacher characteristics (e.g., certification, experience, education) in highpoverty elementary schools and in schools with lower-poverty levels explain differences in teacher contributions to student learning?
  4. To what extent does teacher mobility contribute to differences in teacher value added across high and lower-poverty schools?

Our analysis has important implications for public policy. Given the large variation in teacher effectiveness, major improvements in student outcomes could be realized if schools were to identify the most successful teachers and deploy them in the settings where they could make the most difference. Having improved information about the likely contribution of teachers in high-poverty schools and in other schools, and the degree to which these differences can be explained by the types of factors that are observable ex ante, may help frame the magnitude of the potential problem of staffing schools serving disadvantaged students. And understanding the variation of measured teacher effectiveness within and across high-poverty schools and other schools can offer insight into the potential scope for and design of teacher compensation policies aimed at attracting and retaining highly effective teachers in the most challenging schools. It may also have implications for the design of performance accountability systems, in particular the balance targeted to the school level and individual teacher level.

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