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In L.A., inexperienced teachers more likely to be assigned to students behind in math, study says

L.A. Unified teachers' effectiveness also varies 'substantially,' says the study, which looked at students' standardized math test scores.

November 18, 2012|By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times
  • A file photo of high school students working a math problem.
A file photo of high school students working a math problem. (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

A new study has found that inexperienced teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District are disproportionately more likely to be assigned to lower-performing math students, perpetuating the achievement gap.

The study also found that L.A. Unified teachers "vary substantially" in their effectiveness, with top teachers able to give students the equivalent of eight additional months of learning in a year compared with weaker instructors.

Such findings raise "deep concerns," said Drew Furedi, the district's executive director of talent management, who oversees teacher training. "For us, it's a call to action."

The study by the Strategic Data Project, which is affiliated with Harvard University's Center for Education Policy Research, analyzed the performance of about 30% of L.A. Unified teachers and presented findings based primarily on students' standardized math test scores from 2005 through 2011 in grades three through eight. The study's authors acknowledged that test scores were only one measure of teacher effectiveness.

The study also found that teacher performance after two years is a fairly good predictor of future effectiveness. That finding could be used to challenge moves to overturn laws that let teachers gain tenure after just a few years — a growing effort by those who argue that administrators need more time to make that decision.

"Two years gives you a substantial amount of information," said Jon Fullerton, the research center's executive director.

Fullerton said L.A. Unified teachers varied more than those in three other school districts studied in North Carolina and Georgia. More so than in the other districts, Los Angeles schools also disproportionately placed newer teachers with less-proficient students: Their students were, on average, the equivalent of six months behind peers assigned to more experienced instructors.

The study did not explore the reasons for the situations it found, but it was aimed at providing "information and insight" to the district to craft responses, Fullerton said.

The study also found:

•The performance of math teachers improved quickly in the first five years, then leveled off.

• Those with advanced degrees were no more effective than those without, although L.A. Unified pays more to teachers pursuing such degrees.

• Long-term substitute teachers — who have been employed more frequently to fill in amid widespread layoffs — have positive effects in teaching middle-school math.

No single finding can produce a strategy to erase the district's substantial achievement gap between white students and their black and Latino counterparts, the study said, noting that the difference in performance on fifth-grade math tests was roughly equivalent to more than 1 1/2 years of learning. Multiple strategies would be needed, the study said.

Furedi said one key area of action would be the placement of effective teachers with lower-performing students. District Supt. John Deasy has made it clear that principals should strive to "understand where teachers are and place those with success in front of kids who need them most," Furedi said.

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