Experienced teachers key in California districts that ‘beat the odds’

May 17, 2019

Research released this week identified 156 California school districts with higher test scores in math and English language arts than expected for African-American and Hispanic students and found that teacher experience was the common factor that contributed to the higher results.

“The research finds that providing students with qualified, fully prepared teachers is a critical component for raising student achievement,” said Anne Podolsky, lead author on the report, “California’s Positive Outliers: Districts Beating the Odds, by the Palo-Alto based Learning Policy Institute. Other co-authors included Sean Reardon, professor at the Stanford University School of Education, and the institute’s CEO and president, Linda Darling-Hammond. Hammond is also the newly appointed president of the State Board of Education and an adviser to Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The study looked at 435 districts with at least 200 African-American or Hispanic students and 200 white students and compared the actual scores of the student groups with their predicted scores, based on a formula that includes districts’ median family income, poverty rate and parents’ education levels.

In 48 districts, both African-American and White students achieved at higher than predicted levels on three years of Smarter Balanced tests, which are given to students in grades 3 to 8 and grade 11. In 167 districts, Hispanic and white students scored at higher than predicted levels.

For a list of districts “beating the odds,” check out the LPI report here

Many of the high achievers were smaller districts, including Alvord Unified in the city of Riverside, Etiwanda School District in San Bernardino County and Perris Elementary in Riverside County, for African-American and white students. Hispanic and white students performed higher than predicted in Newhall Elementary in Los Angeles County and Winton School District in Merced County. Among larger districts, Hispanics and white students performed higher than predicted in San Diego, Long Beach and Clovis unified districts. (You can find a list of all of the districts on pages 26 to 34 of the full report.)

In analyzing the data, researchers found that factors often linked to success — overall per-pupil expenditures and teacher-student ratios — after controlling for teacher qualifications, don’t contribute to higher achievement. Teacher salaries do, but not significantly.

What did matter was teacher qualifications, particularly the preparedness of teachers. “We find that the percent of teachers holding substandard credentials is significantly and negatively associated with student achievement,” the study found. For every 10 percent increase in the percentage of teachers with emergency and intern credentials, there was a statistically significant drop in average achievement for Hispanic and African-American students. It amounted to 0.10 standard deviations, which translates, the researchers said, to a loss of about a month of learning.

Previous studies by the institute found that African-American and Hispanic students are assigned a disproportionate share of inexperienced teachers. A continual churn of inexperienced teachers compounds districts’ challenges in training teachers in the state’s academic standards and in building the systems of support the state is counting on to narrow student achievement gaps, Darling-Hammond said in an interview.

The study comes a week after Newsom proposed a $90 million teacher loan forgiveness program in the 2019-20 budget. Darling-Hammond has long supported such a program as a way to ease the state’s teacher shortage. The program would reimburse up to $20,000 of education expenses for teachers in critically short subject areas of science, math and special education. Districts that have issued the most permits for underqualified teachers would be eligible for the new teachers. There would be enough money potentially for 4,500 new teachers ­— equal to about a third of the teachers issued emergency or intern credentials last year.

The district that ranked highest in achievement for African-American and white students is also the state’s largest elementary school district: Chula Vista, with 30,000 students, in San Diego County.

Gloria Ciriza, executive director for curriculum, instruction and assessment for the district, attributed the success to a comprehensive approach to language development applied consistently in all 49 schools. Teachers in seven cohorts do all of their training together, share ideas across the system and “grow as a group,” she said.

There is a resource teacher at every school to coach new teachers. “We build relationships to make teachers feel supported and motivated,” she said.

About 10 percent of Chula Vista’s staff were first- and second-year teachers last year, compared with 13 percent statewide. In Hawthorne School District, one of the highest-achieving districts for Hispanic and white students, only 8 percent of teachers were first- and second-year teachers, according to Ed-Data. Hawthorne is a K-8 district with 8,400 students in Los Angeles County.

Adela Jones, superintendent of Sanger Unified in Fresno County, said the latest report “validates that Sanger is putting resources where we need to, in building teacher capacity.” Sanger, with 11,000 students, was cited for the high achievement of its white and Hispanic students. Sanger’s “professional learning communities” — a system of teacher professional training and collaboration — have been studied for years. The district also has a partnership with Fresno State University to create teacher mentorships for 25 aspiring teachers who spend a year in the classroom working with and learning from an experienced teacher.

The Learning Policy Institute plans a follow-up study, to be released this summer, in which it will examine closely district policies and classroom practices contributing to some of the identified districts’ success.

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