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White students get better teachers in L.A., researcher testifies

EducationLaws and LegislationCrime, Law and JusticeCourts and the JudiciaryLos Angeles Unified School DistrictHillsborough County

Black and Latino students are more likely to get ineffective teachers in Los Angeles schools than white and Asian students, according to a new study by a Harvard researcher. The findings were released this week during a trial challenging the way California handles the dismissal, lay off and tenure process for teachers.

 In the study, professor Thomas J. Kane concluded that the worst teachers—in the bottom 5%--taught 3.2% of white students and 5.4% of Latino students. If ineffective teachers were evenly distributed, you’d expect that 5% of each group of students would have these low-rated instructors.

A similar pattern held when Kane looked at teachers rated in the bottom half: 38.5% of white students had such an instructor; the number was 48.6% for African American students and 52.2% for Latino students.

Kane presented his findings during testimony in Vergara versus California. He appeared as a witness on behalf of nine families, who are backed by the Menlo Park-based Students Matter, which seeks to overturn several laws. The organization opposes teacher tenure decisions being made in only 18 months, layoffs based on seniority rather than merit, and a dismissal process for ineffective teachers that can prove lengthy and costly. These laws have the effect of diminishing the quality of the teacher workforce and do particular harm to low-income and minority students, advocates contend.

The teaching-quality imbalance especially hurts the neediest students because “rather than assign them more effective teachers to help close the gap with white students they’re assigned less effective teachers, which results in the gap being slightly wider in the following year,” Kane testified, according to an unofficial trial transcript. 

His other notable finding was that the worst teachers in Los Angeles are doing more harm to students than the worst ones in other school systems that he compared. The other districts were New York City, Charlotte-Mecklenberg, Dallas, Denver, Memphis and Hillsborough County in Florida.  

Kane’s research was used to suggest that the challenged laws are causing the disparities that he cited.

The statutes are being defended in court by the state of California, the state Federation of Teachers and the California Teachers Assn.

Attorney James Finberg, representing the unions, cited other research that blamed voluntary transfers for the concentration of more-effective teachers at schools with fewer minority students and more pupils from higher-income families. His side has contended that better management, including an effort to improve teaching conditions, could address the disparities found by Kane.

“Well-managed districts are able, within the existing statutory scheme, to give tenure only to those probationary teachers who demonstrate effectiveness, and to dismiss, or encourage the resignation of, the few ineffective teachers who slip through the cracks, or become ineffective,” Finberg said in an interview.

In cross-examination by Finberg, Kane acknowledged that the ability to win tenure rights could help in recruiting talent into the profession.

Kane's study looked at data from the 2004-05 academic year through 2010-11.  It encompassed the test scores of 1.1 million students and 58,000 teachers in grades 3 through 8. It has yet to be reviewed by peers, Kane said.

Kane's ratings of teacher effectiveness were based only on student scores from state standardized tests that were applied to a "value-added" formula. This measurement takes into account such factors as ethnicity, family income and past performance when determining how much an individual teacher affects a student's test results. Kane said that the best measure of a teacher’s work would include other factors in addition to scores.

L.A. Unified has joined the growing number of school systems that measure teachers through a value-added formula, which it calls Academic Growth Over Time. Elsewhere, such ratings count for as much as half of a teacher’s evaluation. Under an agreement with the teachers union, L.A. Unified can only apply the value-added results for an entire school as part of a teacher’s performance review. But an individual’s rating can be used, for example, to inform annual improvement goals.

 

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Twitter: @howardblume | howard.blume@latimes.com

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