Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Study Examines Teacher Assignment Inequalities Within Schools

We often hear about disparities in teacher quality between rich and poor schools. But what about the inequality that takes place within schools?

Every school has a mix of teachers of varying levels of talent and experience. School principals wield the power to determine which students they will be assigned. Experienced teachers may seek to handpick their students. Well-informed, affluent parents may also demand specific teachers.

A new study by Stanford University researchers published in Sociology of Education examined teacher assignments within the Miami-Dade County Public Schools system between the 2003-04 through 2010-11 school years. (Last school year, about 66% of Miami-Dade students were Hispanic.)

Researchers found that low-performing students were more likely be assigned to teachers with less experience, those from less-competitive colleges, female teachers and black and Hispanic teachers.

According to the study, teachers with 10 or more years of experience and those in leadership were more likely to have high-performing students in their classrooms. Teachers who are white, male or attended more competitive universities also tended to be assigned more high-performing students.

There was one interesting exception, however. Those schools under strong accountability pressure were less likely to place the high-achieving students with veteran teachers. But in most cases, campuses are assigning struggling children to less experienced teachers, and the achievement gap persists.

The study cautions that efforts within districts to lure more veteran teachers with financial incentives to certain difficult-to-staff campuses can backfire.

“Within-school sorting may prevent the most effective teachers from being matched to students who need them most even if the sorting of teachers between schools is minimized,” the study says.

According to the study’s survey of principals in Miami-Dade, about 28% of principals said they rewarded strong teachers with the class assignments they wanted. Their motivation was to retain the strong teachers.

In addition, the study notes that “If white principals tend to develop better relationships with white teachers in their school than they develop with black or Hispanic teachers, then a desire to reward their friends with desired classes may contribute to the racial differences in class assignments we observe in schools led by white principals.”

While researchers were critical of assigning students to less-experienced teachers, they were not as critical of the practice of assigning black and Hispanic students to black and Hispanic teachers. They point out that minority teachers may desire these assignments and may have a more powerful impact on their students’ achievement, prompting principals to support making such assignments as well.

This begs the question–is it bad to match students with teachers of the same race or ethnicity? And is some of this happening in regards to Hispanic students because of language issues as well?

In addition, how can the teacher assignment process be reformed?