The inequitable distribution of teachers is one of the major problems facing low-performing schools that serve large numbers of poor and minority students. Typically, teachers in these schools lack the experience, qualifications, effectiveness, or length of service needed to succeed in the classroom. These were a few of the key messages that came out of an April 10 forum convened by the Alliance for Excellent Education and sponsored by the MetLife Foundation.
The key to solving the distribution problem at the high school level is to act comprehensively, by significantly increasing the supply of teacher candidates where shortages exist, improving the recruitment and hiring process, and retaining effective teachers in low-performing high schools. So says “Improving the Distribution of Teachers in Low-performing High Schools,” a new policy brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education that was released at the event.
As explained at the release event by Jeremy Ayers, a policy and advocacy associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education and author of the brief, having an ineffective teacher for a single academic year can equate to a student’s loss of more than a full year of standardized achievement. Conversely, having several effective teachers in a row can repair past damage and substantially increase student achievement. Unfortunately, attracting effective teachers to low-performing schools-especially high schools-is a daunting task because high school teachers’ subject-specific knowledge and training in areas such as mathematics or biology put them in a better position to choose alternate careers.
One way to ensure a more equitable distribution of effective teachers in low-performing schools, Ayers noted, is to grow the numbers of good teachers in the profession. The bulk of the work to increase the pool of effective teachers falls to teacher preparation programs because the majority of new teachers emerge from these programs. Ayers suggested that these institutions start recruiting students with academic promise more aggressively into education programs-especially those majoring in science, technology, engineering, and math. He added that alternative route programs, such as Teach for America and the New York City Teaching Fellows, can also help enlarge the pool of teaching applicants by drawing promising, nontraditional candidates into teaching. Nevertheless, he cautioned that teachers with alternative certification do not stay in teaching as long as teachers from traditional programs coming into the profession.
Compounding the supply issue, low-performing school districts have particular difficulty recruiting and hiring good candidates. However, as explained by Dr. Barbara Jenkins, chief of staff of the Orange County (FL) Public School District, this difficulty should not be blamed on a lack of individuals who want to teach high-need, low-achievement children. Rather, she noted that a lengthy, bureaucratic hiring process often delays decisions.
The brief suggests that, in order to speed up the hiring process and enhance teacher recruitment, districts set measurable hiring goals, and make timely decisions. Some strategies that districts and schools should consider instituting include user-friendly job banks, early notification of vacancies, and budget timelines that allow schools to make offers before the summer.
One popular idea to attract teachers to low-performing schools is increased teacher pay, but according to the brief, extra pay-on its own-is not enough to draw and keep top-notch teachers into struggling schools. “While supplying low-performing or high-need high schools with effective teachers is undoubtedly important, this strategy alone will do little good if the teachers do not remain in the schools to which they have been recruited, and if they are not supported by working conditions, induction, professional development, and career paths that improve their ability to help students achieve,” the brief reads.
As panelists pointed out, poor working conditions often drive effective teachers away after only a few years, even when low-performing schools are able to recruit and hire them. Dr. Barnett Berry, president and CEO of the Center for Teaching Quality, stressed the importance of collecting data on teacher working conditions. “There are vast differences between teacher perceptions in elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools. And even more variations inside high schools than across high schools,” he explained.
Conversely, better-quality working conditions, such as safety, availability of resources, time for collaboration, and positive relationships between principals and school leaders not only decrease teacher turnover, they also lead to better student achievement. By focusing on improving working conditions at the school site, policymakers can help schools to improve retention.
Comprehensive teacher induction is also crucial to retaining teachers. According to the brief, these programs can cut turnover rates in half and rapidly improve teaching skills. The brief also lists other ways to improve the distribution of effective teachers, such as regular professional development, teacher collaboration, and career ladders for experienced and effective teachers. Wesley G. Williams II, director of the Office of Educator Equity in the Ohio Department of Education, seconded the importance of career ladders and explained how Ohio has successfully recruited teachers by offering them job support and the opportunity to advance.
Turning to federal policy recommendations for improving teacher distribution, the panelists agreed on the importance of data to improving teacher distribution and student achievement. Tim Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, said that it would be interesting to begin collecting data on how student behavior, such as student attendance, varies by school teacher. Dr. Jane West, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, said what the teacher is doing in the classroom should also be analyzed in order to determine how well preparation programs are preparing teacher candidates.
Currently, many states lack the capacity to collect and analyze such data. To remedy this problem, the brief suggests that the federal government strengthen and expand the $50 million Statewide Data Systems program. It adds that although state and district policies wield most of the influence over teacher distribution, federal policymakers must play a crucial role in supporting and ensuring comprehensive recruitment, retention, and improvement strategies at the state and local levels. Other recommendations include encouraging teacher preparation programs to recruit and prepare more and better teaching candidates, holding states accountable for reporting and acting on teacher distribution problems, and using federal funds to improve teaching.
The brief, as well as audio and video from the release event, is available here.