Missing: Top Staff in Bottom Schools

The challenge of attracting exemplary teachers to neediest schools by CYNTHIA D. PRINCE

How to close the academic achievement gap between rich and poor may well be the most complex—and most intractable—problem that school system leaders face.

A seemingly endless list of strategies has been proposed to close the achievement gap: smaller classes, smaller schools, standards-based reform, whole-school reform, lengthening the school day, lengthening the school year, before- and after-school programs, vouchers, charter schools and greater parental involvement. The most drastic strategies include privatizing the management of public school systems, mayoral and state takeovers and school reconstitution.

But one idea has received scant attention in discussions of reform strategies: redistributing the best teachers and principals to the lowest performing schools. Why don’t school districts simply assign the most effective educators to the schools that serve children with the greatest needs?

Compelling research evidence indicates that teacher quality is the single most important school variable affecting student achievement, yet tremendous disparities exist in student access to well-qualified teachers. The more impoverished and racially isolated the school, the greater the likelihood that students will be taught by inexperienced teachers, uncertified teachers and out-of-field teachers who do not hold a degree in the subject they are assigned to teach. Schools with these characteristics are invariably low-performing schools.

Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, maintains that about half of the achievement gap would disappear “if we only took the simple step of assuring that poor and minority children had highly qualified teachers.” (See related story) Superintendents have no quarrel with this proposal. Not one would dispute the notion that every child deserves a well-qualified teacher. But no superintendent would agree that the solution is simple. Just the opposite is true.

Disparities in Experience
The overwhelming majority of high school principals are convinced that teacher experience matters. Seventy percent of those surveyed by the National Association of Secondary School Principals report that teachers in their schools who have more experience are more knowledgeable about curriculum, assessment and instruction. Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond observes that studies consistently show experienced teachers are more effective than beginners at resolving a number of instructional and managerial problems. Arizona State University Professor David Berliner suggests it takes between five and eight years to master the art of teaching.

Yet sizable proportions of beginning teachers do not stay in the profession even the minimum length of time to attain this level of expertise. After three years, 29 percent of beginning teachers are no longer teaching, and after five years 39 percent have left the profession. The odds are even worse among teachers in urban schools. Within five years, half will no longer be in classrooms.

Placement in difficult assignments without adequate support is one of the chief reasons beginning teachers give for leaving the profession. Yet novice teachers with three years or less of classroom experience are twice as likely to be assigned to high-minority, high-poverty schools.

Disparities in Skills
Research indicates that teachers’ subject matter knowledge and knowledge about teaching and learning are strongly associated with ratings of teacher effectiveness in the classroom. Yet poor and minority students are disproportionately found in classrooms of teachers with weak preparation and training.

The research firm SRI found in California more than 40,000 classroom teachers were teaching on emergency permits or waivers in 1999-2000. Low-achieving schools were nearly five times as likely as high-achieving schools to employ these teachers. High-minority schools were nearly seven times as likely as low-minority schools to employ them.

In Illinois, a Chicago Sun-Times investigation revealed that teachers in schools with the highest proportions of poor, minority and low-performing students were five times more likely to have failed at least one teacher-competence test than teachers in the state’s most affluent schools. Nearly one-fifth of Chicago teachers failed at least one teacher test, which is 3.5 times the failure rate of suburban teachers.

Disparities in Turnover
Hiring well-trained, fully certified teachers is admittedly more difficult during times of teacher shortages. This growing problem has received considerable media attention, with an estimated two million teachers reportedly needed within the decade. Teacher shortages are usually attributed to rising student enrollments, increased immigration, fewer college graduates electing to become teachers, and teacher attrition (teacher retirements combined with resignations).

But teacher attrition is only one type of teacher turnover. Teacher migration—teachers remaining in the profession but relocating to a different school—is also a significant problem, particularly in high-poverty, high-minority, low-achieving schools. As University of Pennsylvania sociologist Richard Ingersoll points out, teacher migration is often de-emphasized because it does not change the overall supply of teachers. However, high rates of teacher migration are disruptive and can adversely affect staff morale, community relationships and school performance.

About half of the overall turnover of teachers is, in fact, migration from one school to another. Ingersoll notes that schools that report difficulty attracting teachers are nearly twice as likely to have higher than average rates of teacher turnover

In Philadelphia, the district found that one-third of the jobs held by teachers in the public schools turned over between 1996 and 1999. Teachers who moved didn’t necessarily leave Philadelphia. Migration to other schools within the district accounted for nearly half of all job changes. But when teachers did move, they tended to move to “more desirable” schools within the city (those with higher test scores, lower poverty rates and fewer minority students), a pattern consistent with other teacher mobility studies conducted in California and Texas. The end result was that the district’s neediest schools were left with a recurring cycle of staff vacancies.

Complex Explanations
Some superintendents would argue from experience that there simply aren’t enough quality teachers to go around or at least enough of them who are willing to work in hard-to-staff schools. The problem is not strictly a matter of quantity.

Experts on teacher supply and demand acknowledge that with the exception of some high-need areas such as mathematics, science and special education, the number of teachers who are certified each year is sufficient to meet demand. Even in California, where more than 40,000 classroom teachers were teaching on emergency permits or waivers in 1999-2000, the state’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing estimates there are enough credentialed teachers in the state to fill every teaching vacancy four times over.

The problem is primarily one of distribution. High-achieving, affluent school districts seldom encounter problems filling teacher and administrator vacancies. School systems with high concentrations of poor and minority students, on the other hand, generally must make do with much smaller pools of qualified applicants.

In 1996-97, for example, a report for the state department of education revealed that the Baltimore City Public Schools, the poorest system in Maryland, received 1,800 applications for 826 teacher vacancies, an average of two applications per job opening. In comparison, Montgomery County Public Schools, the state’s wealthiest system, received 6,109 applications for 665 teacher vacancies, an average of nine applications per vacancy. Even though Montgomery County had 20 percent fewer vacancies than Baltimore, the district received more than three times as many applications. Baltimore would have had to hire 46 percent of those who applied in order to fill all of its vacancies. Montgomery County, on the other hand, needed only to cream the top 11 percent from its considerably larger pool of teacher applicants.

Differences in community wealth can make enormous differences in a school district’s ability to recruit and retain highly qualified educators. Less affluent districts complain that neighboring districts routinely raid their best teachers and principals with promises of higher salaries and better working conditions.

Salary differentials may partially explain inequities in teacher quality across districts, but they are wholly inadequate explanations for inequities in teacher quality within districts. What is clear is that no single factor is responsible for the clustering of experienced veterans in certain schools or teacher migration to more desirable schools. Rather, a tangled web of perverse incentives and political and bureaucratic barriers within districts contribute to the problem. These include:

• seniority clauses in union contracts that allow veteran teachers to choose where and whom they will teach;

• state policies that prevent principals from obtaining information on teachers’ failure rates on certification tests;

• district policies that grant central-office staff, rather than principals, the authority to select teachers from applicant pools; and

• cumbersome internal district procedures that hinder qualified veteran teachers from transferring to low-achieving schools.

Dysfunction and Conflict
Changing these kinds of dysfunctional policies and procedures will require politically astute superintendents who are willing to take risks that will inevitably create conflict.

“Conflict,” maintains Larry Cuban, a Stanford emeritus professor, “is the DNA of the superintendency.” He proposes that those who survive are the ones who become adept at reconciling the tensions that arise from the competing political, managerial and instructional roles expected of a superintendent. Superintendents must “manage bureaucracies efficiently, lead principals and teachers in instructional matters and mobilize political coalitions of teachers, parents and students to move schools from being inadequate and just good-enough to ones that are excellent.”

According to Cuban, who once worked as a district superintendent, each of these roles—politician, manager and instructional leader—entails different sets of responsibilities and values that may be inherently contradictory. In an Education Week commentary, he wrote: “Managing, for example, means keeping the organization working smoothly and efficiently toward its goals. Stability is the password. Reducing conflict is highly prized. Leading, on the other hand, means seeking changes, taking risks, and accepting conflict as a natural condition in the district.”

Consider just a few of the political, managerial and instructional dilemmas that may arise when superintendents attempt to redistribute highly qualified teachers and principals to the schools with the greatest needs.

Political dilemmas

If superintendents concentrate the best teachers in the lowest-performing schools to give disadvantaged students the best chance to excel, they run the risk of alienating parents of students in the district’s more affluent schools and accelerating middle-class flight.

If superintendents reassign or remove unqualified teachers and principals in an effort to improve failing schools, they may draw the ire of union officials, parents and school board members. In some cases, removing existing staff may be a futile gesture anyway. As one former teacher in East Los Angeles pointed out, “Replacing the teachers is an empty threat. Nobody’s waiting for our jobs.”

Managerial dilemmas

In many districts, superintendents have difficulty keeping experienced teachers in needy schools because union contracts allow teachers with seniority to transfer to more desirable schools. Superintendents must carefully weigh whether the benefit of having the authority to decide where teachers and principals are allowed to work is worth the risk of losing experienced staff to neighboring districts during a period of chronic teacher and principal shortages.

Recent articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post have documented cases of teachers retiring early, switching schools or changing the subjects or grade levels they teach in an effort to avoid the pressures and sometimes single-minded focus on testing created by high-stakes state examinations.

How can superintendents attract qualified teachers and principals to their district’s lowest-performing schools when state rewards and sanctions tied to student test scores loom as powerful disincentives?

Instructional dilemmas

If superintendents reassign exemplary principals to low-performing schools in an attempt to lure good teachers, what happens to staff morale, school performance and student achievement in the schools that the most effective principals and teachers leave?

Some states and districts are offering upfront signing bonuses to principals and teachers willing to work in high-poverty, low-achieving schools. Will upfront bonuses simply encourage teachers to hop from school to school to collect them, as some experts fear, further aggravating the problem of high teacher turnover in struggling schools?

Political Realities
These dilemmas are not purely hypothetical. Education leaders who attempt to redistribute teachers and principals or remove unqualified ones often meet stiff opposition from teacher and principal unions, parents and school board members.

The following cases, reported in local newspapers and Education Week, suggest just how politically volatile it can be to make leadership changes at the school level or to reassign teachers as part of a strategy to improve academic performance in high poverty, low-performing schools.

• In California, a state task force recently recommended banning the widespread practice of assigning the least-experienced teachers to the state’s neediest schools. The proposal would shift authority for determining teacher placements to principals rather than allowing teachers with seniority to choose their assignments. Wayne Johnson, president of the California Teachers Association, threatened that teachers would quit rather than accept such conditions, saying, “If you think you have a teacher shortage now, wait till you do that and people know they have no right to teach where they are or where they want to teach, that some administrator will decide where they go. … They’re just not going to get it done. … We’ll see to it.”

• In New York City, principals complain that teacher seniority rules prevent them from assigning experienced teachers to the schools, and even the grades, where they are most needed. The city’s contract with the teachers union requires principals to distribute “preference sheets” to teachers in the spring, asking them to indicate their top three choices of teaching assignments for the following school year. According to representatives of the city’s principals union, principals technically can veto a teacher’s request, but rarely do because they are afraid that teachers may file lengthy grievances.

The principals’ own union has protected principals from being reassigned without permission and from being demoted or fired without extensive disciplinary hearings. Former Chancellor Rudy Crew was criticized for failing to remove ineffective principals in low-performing schools, but argued that tenure protections simply forced him to move poor performers to other schools within the city.

* In Philadelphia, principals voice similar complaints. Until recently, the city’s contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers granted the district’s central office, rather than principals, the authority to recruit, hire and assign teachers to schools. In addition, the union contract granted teachers, not principals, the right to control teacher transfers between schools. Some principals bitterly complained they were powerless to raise academic achievement in their schools when they had no authority to influence teacher selection or transfer decisions.

• In Chicago, district leaders in 1997 reconstituted seven failing high schools. In theory, this meant principals would be dismissed and teachers would have to reapply for their jobs as poorly performing staff members are removed to give failing schools a fresh start. In reality, two-thirds of the Chicago teachers were simply rehired by their old schools. Another 174 were reshuffled to other schools in the district.

• Hartford, Conn., Superintendent of Schools Anthony Amato infuriated teachers and union representatives when he submitted a draft plan to school trustees that would reconstitute failing Hartford schools and transfer the teachers and principals who worked in them. The president of the Hartford teachers union responded angrily by publicly calling for the reconstitution of the school district’s central office.

• When Prince George’s County, Md., Superintendent Iris Metts reassigned a number of veteran principals and vice principals to equalize staffing and improve leadership in schools with declining performance, the county’s principals’ union and some parents and school board members objected adamantly. The union staged a demonstration to challenge the superintendent’s decisions, claiming the move violated principals’ contracts and that the superintendent was illegally pressuring administrators to retire.

• In Richmond, Va., Superintendent Patricia Conn was hired by the school board in 1995 to turn around the city’s struggling public schools but found herself unemployed within 19 months when she began reassigning principals and other school personnel. At first, the board removed her authority to transfer staff without their approval. Several months later, she was suspended for 45 days for insubordination. Six weeks after that, the board bought out the remainder of her contract.

Initial Remedies
Clearly, finding the right combination of carrots and sticks to remedy inequities in teacher quality and persuade unwilling unions, school boards, parent organizations and staff to support change is a formidable challenge. Nevertheless, some states and school districts are taking steps to address this urgent problem.

The approaches that have been taken generally fall into three categories: policy changes, monetary incentives and non-monetary incentives.

Policy changes

One strategy to correct the uneven distribution of highly qualified teachers is to change dysfunctional state and local policies. Some school districts, including Seattle, have effectively bargained with the local teachers’ unions to ease teacher seniority rules and give principals more authority for determining teacher placements. Philadelphia’s teacher contract was amended to allow principals to select their own teachers from a pre-qualified applicant pool if two-thirds of the teachers in their school agreed to adopt this change in policy.

Several school districts have taken steps to eliminate residency rules that deter some teachers from working in urban schools because they require teachers to live within the city limits. Buffalo is considering abolishing teacher residency requirements, and Chicago recently began waiving its residency requirement for teachers with specialties in hard-to-fill subject areas. Residency requirements were rescinded last year for all teachers in Providence, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

In Illinois, state legislators are considering proposals to change state policies that prevent principals from knowing how many times teachers fail state-required basic skills and subject matter tests. Texas already makes teachers’ scores on state certification tests public, as well as the number of attempts teachers needed to pass them. In New York, teacher certification details are available online, and in Florida, schools are required to inform parents in writing at the beginning of the year if their child is assigned to a teacher who is teaching out of field. Kentucky has created a website that lists the certificates held by every teacher and administrator in the state, including the subjects and grades that each educator is permitted to teach.

Monetary incentives

A second strategy to attract and retain highly qualified teachers in the neediest schools is to offer monetary incentives (see related story). Teachers employed in certain low-performing Maryland schools, for example, receive cash incentives of $2,000 each, as do Philadelphia teachers willing to work in 19 hard-to-staff schools. Teachers participating in South Carolina’s Teacher Specialist On-Site Program for low-performing rural schools receive bonuses of $19,000, equivalent to half of the average teacher’s annual salary in the Southeast.

National board-certified teachers in Fairfax County, Va., can increase their annual pay by $3,500 by taking on additional responsibilities and working in schools that serve large numbers of disadvantaged students. California offers $20,000 ($5,000 a year for four years) to every national board-certified teacher who agrees to work in a school in the bottom half of the state’s academic performance list. New York offers $30,000 ($10,000 a year for three years) to teachers with national certification who mentor new teachers in low-performing schools.

Connecticut offers low-interest mortgages and assistance with down payments to teachers who work in high-poverty neighborhoods. California offers teachers and administrators $7,500 loans toward down payments on housing if they agree to work in low-performing California schools for five years.

Last year California also allocated $118 million to help districts recruit and retain credentialed teachers in the state’s 200 lowest-performing schools (although this incentive program has since been eliminated). Anaheim used its allotment to award $2,500 signing bonuses to each new, fully credentialed teacher willing to work in one of 23 low-performing schools, and an additional $2,000 if he or she remained in the school a second year. Vacancies in the school district fell from 120 in July 1999 to none in 2001.

In addition, California offers annual state income tax credits ranging from $250 to $1,500 to practicing certified teachers with at least four years of experience. California’s tax benefit is not targeted specifically to teachers who work in high-poverty schools. However, AASA has proposed a federal income tax credit that would enable fully certified teachers and principals who work in high-poverty public schools to reduce their federal income tax payments by up to $4,000 a year.

Non-monetary incentives

A third strategy is to offer non-monetary incentives that aim to improve working conditions in schools and provide professional incentives that encourage and reward good teaching. One district that has developed promising non-monetary incentives to make teaching in hard-to-staff schools more desirable is the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district in North Carolina. Analyses of staffing patterns revealed that teachers in the district’s lowest-performing schools had less experience, fewer advanced degrees and higher rates of absenteeism than teachers in other schools. The district subsequently reduced student-teacher ratios in low-performing schools and implemented programs to help teachers in those schools earn master’s degrees.

In Prince George’s County, Md., Superintendent Iris Metts’ plan to improve academic achievement in 15 schools on the state’s watch list includes incentives such as reduced class sizes of 15 students or less if teachers promise to remain in the schools for several years. The plan also would extend the traditional school calendar from 9 to 11 months to increase planning and mentoring time for teachers as well as learning time for students.

Continuing Challenge
The newly reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act makes clear that the inequitable distribution of high quality teachers will no longer be tolerated. The law requires that all new teachers hired after the beginning of the 2002-2003 school year in programs supported by federal Title I funds must be highly qualified. All teachers, regardless of funding source, must be highly qualified by the end of 2005-2006. The intent of these requirements is commendable, but meeting them in a matter of a few years presents an enormous challenge to school system leaders.

The American Association of School Administrators believes that we will not satisfy critics of public schools until we can provide a quality education for every child. Yet we cannot provide a quality education for every child until we can put highly qualified teachers in every classroom and superb principals in every school.

Current efforts to improve high-poverty, low-performing schools—accountability, standards, student testing, whole-school programs, staff development and a myriad of other initiatives—are doomed to failure until we address the challenge of recruiting and retaining quality teachers and principals. Meaningful school improvement, higher student achievement and popular support for public schools await the results of these efforts.

Cynthia Prince is an issues analysis director at AASA. E-mail: cprince@aasa.org.

The complete report by Cynthia Prince, “The Challenge of Attracting Good Teachers and Principals to Struggling Schools,” can be found on the AASA website at www.aasa.org/

After reading the report, AASA encourages you to complete the accompanying online survey to let the association’s leadership know what you think AASA should advocate on this subject. Your response will help AASA forge a policy position on this issue.