In school districts across the nation, Black, Latino, and Native American students, as well as students from low-income families, are less likely to have access to strong consistent teaching than their White and more affluent peers. Even students have a sense that this is happening.

How are students affected?

“Nobody wants to teach here.”

In a room of 10 seventh- and eighth-graders, the 12-year-old girl’s words were throat-gripping. The nine nods that followed made the grip seem even tighter.

In less than two years, this seventh-grader had already seen two different principals — one departing mid-year — and teachers who came and went with what must’ve felt like the frequency of the class bell.

Barely grazing their teens, her eighth-grade peers had already developed a thin veil of uncaring and a practiced nonchalance.

“Y’all remember that one guy?” an eighth-grade boy called out. “We had this White guy come in and take over Mr. M’s old class after he left. He was like, ‘I’m from the ‘hood. I grew up in the ghetto and I made it out.’”

The boy next to him cracked up. “Yeah, he said he would never leave. And he was gone in two days. He was there Thursday and Friday, and then the weekend came. Monday, he’s not there.”

The first boy ripped back, “Remember how he said anyone who could get the 50 states first, he’d buy them lunch for the rest of the year? He also said, you do good in his class and he would get you a new pair of shoes. Then he was gone. He still owes someone some food!”

More laughter. Almost manic. And entirely heart-breaking.

When asked if they got the teachers they needed, a chorus of no’s filled the room.

When asked why, an eighth-grade girl, who had been quiet until that point, spoke up.

“I think it’s because of the kids.”

What do researchers think about this problem?

Of course, it’s not the kids’ fault they’ve seen a revolving door of teachers. Children have no way to know that, while teacher turnover is nearly twice as high in schools serving larger percentages of low-income students and students of color compared to schools serving primarily more affluent and White students, that difference largely disappears when you only compare teachers who are satisfied with leadership and staff cohesion. No, the kids aren’t driving their teachers away; it’s the lack of support educators get in many high-need schools.

While some turnover is normal and may have a positive impact on schools, a pattern of chronic high attrition comes with a cost to student learning. Teachers and school leaders find it harder to build the relationships that are vital to collaboration and effective instructional teams. The teachers who are hired to fill vacancies may have less experience than those who left. And high turnover may result in more shuffling of teachers between grades and subjects, making it harder for them to hone their expertise.

That’s not to say that there aren’t excellent teachers who succeed in high-need schools despite these challenges — there absolutely are. But research has long shown an indisputable pattern: Low-income students and students of color are less likely than their White and higher income peers to be assigned to a strong teacher. And while the academic impact of these inequities is dramatic — students with the strongest teachers gain months’ worth of additional learning — so too are the psychological effects on students who are left to wonder why they don’t get or keep the teachers they need, and whether they even deserve them.

What can education leaders do to help?

Education leaders at every level have the ability and responsibility to help address this situation. While many of the assignment and professional development decisions happen at the district and school levels, state leaders play an important role, too. In Ed Trust’s recent report, Tackling Gaps in Access to Strong Teachers: What State Leaders Can Do, we focus on how state leaders can help remedy disparities in access to excellent educators. For example, state officials can:

  • Use data to inform both education leaders and the public about inequitable access to strong teachers and its impact on students
  • Prioritize professional development and other supports for the districts and schools that need them the most
  • Set clear expectations for eliminating these disparities, and hold district and school leaders accountable for meeting them

As state leaders implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), they have an opportunity to take action on behalf of young people in their states. Like these middle schoolers, too many students have been deprived of their fair share of America’s great teachers, not because of anything the students did, but because adults in their districts and states have failed to act.