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The relationship between teacher effectiveness and student home life is complicated, and sometimes contentious

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Over the last few months, New Hanover County School Board members and administrators have been discussing how much a teacher influences a student’s ability to grow academically. The debate has real consequences for how teachers are evaluated —which in turn plays a role in the stresses of the job.

At a September 7th, 2021 board meeting, Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust and Board Member Judy Justice debated the influence of a student’s home life on academic growth. Foust downplayed the impact of life outside of school. Foust led by focusing on the importance of teachers.

"We cannot say that teachers don’t make an impact," he said.

Judy Justice didn't disagree, saying, “Absolutely they do.”

But Foust went on to deny that a student's home life was part of a student's growth.

“And I will be honest with you, I love to have that discussion with anyone, but I know the impact that teachers make when they are teaching the curriculum with fidelity," Foust said. "We have to stop saying that home life dictates growth, it doesn’t, and there’s no research that says that.”

Justice disagreed with that assessment, saying. “Oh, really?”

Related: Teacher morale is sinking in New Hanover County. It's not just the pandemic to blame

Who, or what, determines 'student growth'?

Dr. Lauren Sartain is an assistant professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Education. She said it’s important to start by making the distinction between student test scores and student growth.

“So just the test scores, that is picking up a lot of what’s going on at home, what’s going on the in the community, where student growth is more about what’s going on in the classroom and what’s going on in the school,” said Sartain.

Sartain added that these growth measures take into account where a student started at the beginning of the year and look at how much they grew during the year. But test scores don’t typically “account for where they started at the beginning of the year, but they do reflect a lot of what’s going on outside the school. They reflect a lot about students’ socioeconomic status and access to different resources outside of school.”

At a local NAACP meeting in May 2021, Foust also zeroed in on the idea that teachers are responsible for students achieving growth: “And that’s why we have so much work to do. I’ll be honest with you, we’ve got to change mindsets, and so that’s why we are having courageous conversations with individuals about what their output is.”

Foust added, “this is not the kids, it’s an adult thing. Doing turnaround work is not a kid thing and getting people to believe that kids can learn.”

At a New Hanover County/City of Wilmington Community Relations Advisory Committee meeting in August 2021, Foust said that teachers tend to get upset when the district presents them with data that shows that they didn’t teach the curriculum properly.

“And the problem with us as educators is that we get offended immediately when someone says we’re not doing it right. You can’t fix anything if you’re getting offended. Yes, I love our teachers, but I love our kids more because they come to school to learn. And for us to get offended, ‘We’ve got to pat our teachers on the back.’ We do that every single day, [...] and when we look at the data, it’s proven that some of our kids are not getting the highest quality education, and we put it on their home life,” said Foust.

Foust added that educators tend to “lower the expectations because we believe that the home environment impacts what’s going on in the classroom.”

A complex issue

While Sartain agrees teachers have the most impact on growth, she said holistically for a student, life outside of school does matter a lot: “Day one entering kindergarten, there are already gaps, and what students from different backgrounds know, right? So to say that home life doesn’t matter seems unfair.”

She said it matters, for example, what resources are available to the school, how engaged the local PTA is, and what internet access looks like at home.

Sartain also acknowledged there is a big difference between teachers who are effective — and those who aren’t: “Research over and over again points to how critical teachers are for students, and that means there are some really, really great teachers out there, and some not so great teachers out there.”

But the issue is more complex than simply 'home life' versus 'teacher effectiveness.' Sartain noted that an effective teacher is more important when a student might be put at a disadvantage by their home life.

Sartain said, “Really good teachers matter the most for students from low-income families in particular because they don’t have necessarily family resources to fill in the holes, and so yes, teachers are the most important school-based factor for student growth.”

According to Sartain, principals help to support student academic growth, too — a focus shared by Dr. Tim Drake, an assistant professor of education, leadership, and policy at N.C. State University. He’s currently teaching a leadership course to principals on how to best lead at their schools.

He said effective principals also have a major impact on student growth compared to ineffective ones. Drake said a synthesis of two decades of research from the Wallace Foundation, shows this fairly dramatically.

“Principals moving from an ineffective or less effective, so a principal at the 25th percentile of effectiveness to the 75th, so from ineffective to effective, the difference between those schools is about three months of learning in math and reading, which is shocking, right?” said Drake.

Student background and teacher evaluations

The North Carolina Department of Education rates schools on student performance on standardized tests and their academic growth. Teachers are rated on how their students grow academically, as measured by SAS’s Evaluation Valued-Added Assessment System (EVAAS) and through in-class observations. Doing well on these evaluations isn't just key to career advancement for teachers — it also plays a role in their mental health.

One issue with these evaluations is that they don't just depend on teacher skill — they also depend on the backgrounds of the students they are teaching.

Sartain has conducted research with Chicago Public Schools, which shows how just how dependent a teacher’s in-class evaluations are on students’ economic status:

“Student background is actually really, really correlated with those ratings, so that teachers who have students who are already higher-achieving, or teachers who teach in more affluent schools, their ratings are higher, on average, than teachers who work in schools that are serving less affluent student bodies,” said Sartain.

She said other researchers are confirming this, and thinks that what’s going on isn’t about a difference in teacher quality — instead, simply, it's easier for a teacher to do their job if they have less to manage.

“Because your students are already coming to school and they’re already fed, and they’re already on grade level, things like that really matter a lot,” said Sartain.

Because students are coming in with more needs post-pandemic, this also could be affecting how teachers are perceived by administrators.

Additionally, Sartain said these increasing student needs are one possible contributor to the current burnout and mental health issues that teachers are experiencing.

Because of emerging mental health issues, Dr. Tim Drake said it’s important for principals to be a positive force in the lives of teachers. And they should serve as a mediator between central office and teachers:

“In these conversations when teachers aren't feeling listened to and cared for, and when superintendents feel pressure to perform, principals can play that buffering and bridging role to make sure that everyone feels heard and acknowledged and that you're attending to ultimately, as the superintendent notes, we're really trying to get students healthy and performing. And I think teachers know that, but the principal can play that role to support both,” said Drake.

Drake added, in these divisive times, it’s important to have grace for ourselves and others, and that district staff are doing the best they can.