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May 10, 2013

Who gets the best teachers?

By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

“I’m telling you, no one wants to teach 3rd grade in San Francisco.”

Around here, we discuss school a lot. So much that it seeps into our water cooler talk right alongside embarrassing stories and recaps of our collective favorite show, Parenthood.

This tidbit about San Francisco teachers avoiding 3rd grade comes from my colleague. It’s backed with the sort of word-of-mouth parent knowledge that, frankly, families tend to rely on. Though unproven, this eyebrow-raising nugget makes you stop and think — especially if you have an elementary schooler in the district. Her hypothesis: in San Francisco, 3rd graders (the oldest students subject to state-mandated smaller class sizes) tend to be relegated to the “trailer classrooms” that can only accommodate so many kids. They’re colder and less appealing, she says, making them unpopular among teachers who’d rather spend the year in a sunnier, larger classroom. This in turn had us all discussing our theories about why teachers ask for and avoid certain grade levels, classes, schools, districts — and how often teachers indeed get their pick.

Coincidentally, our talk comes on the heels of new research out of Stanford Graduate School of Education and the World Bank. The researchers set out to study the achievement gap — not only between different schools, but also between students at the same school. Turns out, student-teacher assignments may play a pretty big role in widening the gap.

The biggest take-away from the study is, to my dismay, at once shocking and (world-weary sigh) not: lower-achieving students often get the less-experienced teachers as well as ones who received their degrees from less-competitive colleges — and not just from school to school, but within the same school.

A PsyPost article about the Stanford research explains: “According to the researchers, teachers who have been at a school for a long time may be able to influence the assignment process in order to secure their preferred classes — for instance, classes with higher-achieving students. The study found that teachers with 10 or more years of experience, as well as teachers who have held leadership positions, are assigned higher-achieving students on average.”

The Stanford study focused on the country’s fourth-largest school district, Miami-Dade County Public Schools. While these findings may not apply to all schools nationwide (or even your child’s school), they just might. And if so, it may help explain the achievement gap — not only between schools in the same district, but between students at the same school. For example, the achievement gap within my high school, a GreatSchools 9, is revealed if you look at the rating by ethnicity: it’s a 10 for white kids but a 5 for African-American kids. At other schools you might see such a divide between kids of different socioeconomic statuses, for kids with and without disabilities, or based on their parents’ education level.

Not to blame teachers — with seniority there should be perks, especially in a challenging profession. And of course the teacher with a PhD in physics from Stanford is the obvious choice to teach AP Physics, just as the published fiction author is likely the best choice for your school’s most talented student writers.

But the sad truth at the heart of this study is that new teachers just starting a tough new career are more likely to get students who are already behind (which is what “lower-achieving students” tends to mean). It also stands to reason that when a teacher’s just starting out, an easier assignment may help her ease in while building her skills. But in a profession with such high turnover — about 12 percent of teachers are in the classroom for only three years — schools risk losing talented teachers before anyone ever got a chance to see them shine. 

(Read HuffPo’s “Top 5 reasons why teacher turnover is rising.”


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Interesting comments. In our area, third grade is populated by seasoned teachers high on the signing matrix.

Third grade is the highest grade of reduced class size. While 4th and 5th grade teachers have to endure class size above 35, 3rd grade is the last year of 24:1 ratios.

Sometimes veteran teachers are a good thing, and sometimes, less so.

But before parents worry about whether a particular grade is good/bad, make sure you realize some of these issues are clearly regional.

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