Thoughts on Equitable Teacher Distribution

Wednesday, June 17, 2009
In a U.S. News & World Report article (“In Urban Classrooms, the Least Experienced Teach the Neediest Kids”), the New America Foundation’s MaryEllen McGuire offers a compelling analysis of the problem of inequitable teacher distribution in American schools.
Why are our least experienced professionals consistently being handed the most challenging teaching assignments? Because of the way seniority is rewarded in teacher contracts. More often that not, union contracts dictate that veteran teachers get first dibs on available positions within a school system. As a result, when given the chance, teachers often choose to transfer to more desirable, low-poverty schools. As a result of these transfers, students with the greatest educational need are time and time again taught by the least experienced teachers.
This is a topic that the Education Optimists have written about previously (see here and here). In addition, The Education Trust has done some good work on this issue, including this 2006 report ("Teaching Inequality: How Poor and Minority Students Are Shortchanged on Teacher Quality") by Kati Haycock and Heather Peske.

But compared to her solid conception of the problem, McGuire somewhat misses the mark on proposed solutions to inequitable teacher distribution. She writes:

This will require a long-term commitment to systemic reform including investing in low-poverty schools to make them more attractive teaching placements and funding incentives to initially attract experienced and, we hope, higher quality teachers to low-income schools. Will this require dollars beyond what we have? Not necessarily. Federal law already provides schools with money to pay for this. It's just that the funds typically go to reduce class sizes or provide professional development for teachers instead - strategies that have mixed results. Some of these funds should be redirected to pay for incentives drawing teachers into high-poverty schools. This is also a great use of stimulus money.

Should some federal Title II dollars be used for recruitment incentives? Sure - but let's not take that idea too far. The distribution problem is one of retention as much as it is one of recruitment. Title II funding should and can be used for high-quality professional development and high-quality induction and mentoring focused on improving teaching practice – efforts directed at making teachers more effective that simultaneously improve retention and self-efficacy. This legislation, sponsored by U.S. Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, would go a long way toward these ends. Arguably, these approaches to teacher development are arguably a far better use of stimulus money than recruitment incentives.

In addition, as the author suggests (“more attractive teaching placements”), we need to work with school leaders and policymakers to improve the working conditions in these hard-to-staff, high-poverty schools and districts. We need to provide educators time to collaborate and a role in school decision-making—things that don't cost a whole lot of money but that do require a new way of doing business. Research has shown these factors are often more important than often paltry recruitment incentives in keeping the highest-quality, most effective teachers at hard-to-staff schools.