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We already know that low-income children, children of color, and English learners are more likely to be assigned to a brand-new teacher than their wealthier and White peers. But a new study shows that — even when they’re placed in a classroom with an educator who’s been at the school for a while — they are still more likely than their peers to have a teacher who is new to the grade or subject.

Using three decades of data from New York City, the researchers found that Black and Hispanic children are 20 percent more likely to be placed with a new-to-assignment teacher within the same school, and English learners are 30 percent more likely. The study also shows that schools with higher percentages of students of color, English learners, and high rates of suspension or absenteeism tend to experience more “churn” of teachers from subject to subject or grade to grade.

Why does this matter? Isn’t experience enough?

Not exactly.

Teaching a new grade or subject — even in the same school — comes with a learning curve, the study found. Students with a new-to-assignment teacher have lower achievement than if they had been assigned to a teacher who taught the same subject or grade the previous year. The authors guess that this is because teachers who have never taught that grade or subject before have to become familiar with a new curriculum and new standards. They have to create new lesson plans and learn to use new materials. And they have to work with a new set of colleagues. Although the negative impact of having a teacher who has never taught the grade or subject is small, being placed with a new-to-assignment teacher year after year could have serious and lasting consequences for students’ achievement.

The study doesn’t talk about why low-income children, children of color, and English learners are more likely to be taught by teachers who are new to their assignment, but one can imagine a number of contributing factors. Unstable school and district leadership, financial shortages, and insufficient supports result in tough working conditions that lead to high teacher turnover — which could increase the need to shuffle teachers around. Moreover, practices within schools that affect student and teacher assignment (such as tracking or acquiescing to the preferences of some parents) often disadvantage low-income students and students of color.

The study adds another layer to what we already know about equitable access to strong teaching. It reinforces the urgency for states and districts to address the systemic resource inequities (such as inequitable funding formulas or inconsistent leadership) that contribute to poor working conditions. And, as school leaders across the country begin to build their master schedules for the 2017-18 school year, this study serves as an important reminder of the need to strategically address gaps in access to strong and consistent teaching. This means ensuring that low-income students and students of color are not disproportionately assigned to teachers who are uncertified, out-of-field, or brand-new — not only to the profession, but also to a particular subject or grade.

Photo credit: Doby Photography

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