The poverty factor

Evaluating teachers based on “value-added” analysis of their students’ progress is unfair to teachers with lots of low-income students, argue teachers’ union leaders in Washington, D.C.

Ward 8, one of the poorest areas of the city, has only 5 percent of the teachers defined as effective under the new evaluation system known as IMPACT, but more than a quarter of the ineffective ones. Ward 3, encompassing some of the city’s more affluent neighborhoods, has nearly a quarter of the best teachers, but only 8 percent of the worst.

. . .  Are the best, most experienced D.C. teachers concentrated in the wealthiest schools, while the worst are concentrated in the poorest schools? Or does the statistical model ignore the possibility that it’s more difficult to teach a room of impoverished children?

Value-added models compare a student’s previous progress with current progress: If Johnny has gained four months of learning for every year in school — because of poverty, disability, lack of English fluency or some other reason — and gains six months in Teacher X’s class, then the teacher has done well. If Jane has gained nine months a year in past years but only six months in Teacher Y’s class, the teacher gets the blame.

Adding demographic factors is unnecessary, if there’s at least three years of test-score data available, says William Sanders, a former University of Tennessee researcher who developed value-added analysis.

“If you’ve got a poor black kid and a rich white kid that have exactly the same academic achievement levels, do you want the same expectations for both of them the next year?”

However, D.C. uses one year of data, and factors in students’ poverty status.

A few value-added models factor in the concentration of disadvantaged students in a classroom.

Studies have found that students surrounded by more advantaged peers tend to score higher on tests than similarly performing students surrounded by less advantaged peers.

To some experts, this research suggests that a teacher with a large number of low-achieving minority children in a classroom, for example, might have a more difficult job than another teacher with few such students.

Controlling for the demographics of a whole class makes a complex model even more complicated — and may not make much difference. But the idea is being studied.


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  1. Assuming you can do so in a manner consistent with FERPA and any similar laws or regulations at the state level – and if FERPA interferes it should be amended – there’s no reason why students’ past academic performance and test scores can’t be factored into teacher evaluations. It’s not as if we’re talking about calculations made by hand – if you can track the student’s data from year to year, you can built it into your computerized formula.

    Doing so should render the student’s background irrelevant, save in the earliest grades when you don’t yet have an academic track record to work with, as it’s the student’s academic performance that matters. Tracking students over time should also highlight any irregularities within a classroom that would suggest that cheating occurred. With enough data you should also be able to help distinguish statistical anomalies from unusually high or low performance, and you may also be able to identify classrooms that (whatever the instant performance) are associated with higher or lower performance in subsequent years.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    People say that parents and home culture are an important part of educational outcomes for kids.

    Certainly they are correct — because culture, that vague sort of catch-all phrase for habits and attitudes that tend to cluster together, is probably the single most important factor once one discounts things like “Are there marauding bands of warlords outside the school?”

    But culture is contagious — but not like a virus where one person infects a herd. It’s contagious in the way a herd can infect one person. People strive to fit in with a group. And if you have a large enough mass of high-achieving, or just hard-working-and-respectful students, you’re going to fundamentally change the peer group culture of your school.

    Attempts to double-regress this sort of variable are doomed to failure.

    • How do you propose to create that contagious culture?

      I substitute taught quite a few years back in a high school that had the distinction of having its population split between high SES students living on a beautiful riverfront and low SES students from the rest of the community – virtually nobody between the two extremes. Guess how hard it was to figure out which students came from which background?

      I personally attended an academic magnet school for high school, but it also served the local community. I saw the same collection of faces in most of my classes, and they were the ones present in the school for the academics. We saw the other kids, for the most part, when we took requires courses that did not have academic streaming or in gym class, and it was not difficult to determine in either context which of us were the ‘eggheads’ and which were not.

      One of the common frustrations expressed about integrating schools, whether by race, SES, or any other measure, is that kids self-segregate socially so, for example, you very often see kids with the same background eating lunch together with little mixing.

      And when you start talking about cultural contagion, to push your analogy to its breaking point, you often see wealthy parents pull their kids out of the “infected” school so that their kids don’t get cooties.

      • “How do you propose to create that contagious culture?”

        The first thing to do is bring back small schools. My high school had 537 students my senior year, and we were a 7th grade to 12th grade school. By my senior year, almost every teacher knew me, as a person, not an ID number or face. There was almost no segregation. I played football with the same kids I was on the debate team with. There was a common culture, based on success. (not necessarily academic) The school I teach at currently has over 3,000 students, 9th to 12th grade. There is no common culture, there is no identification with the school at all for many of them, so there is no possibility of transmitting culture.

        The second thing is to immediately and permanently remove the chronic disruptors. My school simply did not tolerate chronic disruptors. Once a pattern was established, the kid was removed. In my district, the continuation high schools are refusing to allow some of my students to transfer, on behavior and accrued credit grounds. So instead, these chronic disruptors stay in my class, and chronically disrupt it.

        • I completely agree that the disruptors need to be removed…but I question the usefulness of a small school. I would consider my current school to be one (approximately 120 students per grade) since I have previously worked in schools with 400-700 per grade. While we don’t have many major behavioral problems (violence), we do have a chronic problem with low to mid- level problems. Disrespect, harassment, vandalism…all lower the level of expectations that the students have for themselves. The miscreants are treated like heroes in school (or at least Lindsay Lohan-like celebrities at worst). We have one 16-year old freshman who has a regular following of 4-5 ‘apprentices.’

          I’ve also worked in an inner-city large school that was, well, ruthless when it came to disciplining and isolating troublemakers. Sure, the school had it’s share of fights between the troublemakers but the culture didn’t infect the general student body because the administration didn’t allow it.

          There is no stigma to being a troublemaker nowadays. When I was in school, the disruptors were moved to special classrooms or other buildings, and were often talked about in a way that made them seem mentally insufficient (whether they were or not). This kept them from gathering followers who emulated their behavior. Now we excuse their behavior because of the difficulties of their lives, throw them into general classrooms, and let them ruin the educational opportunities for other students. We had a student set fire to a bathroom in our school, and after the Special Ed dept chair intervened, he got a 3-day suspension. His disability? Hearing difficulties.