Thoughts on Equitable Teacher Distribution

June 17, 2009 | Blog

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.


  1. Reply

    Sherman Dorn

    June 17, 2009


    I'm a little surprised you're convinced by the "teacher contract" argument as causal instead of byproduct of a larger pattern. I know that the same patterns exist in both unionized places without those preferences in contracts and also in nonunionized places. So it's a much deeper problem.

    That's actually another reason to suspect you're right on the possible remedies.

  2. Reply

    Liam Goldrick

    June 17, 2009

    Thanks for your thoughts, Sherman. I agree that it is a deeper problem, not due only to contracts and veteran preference, but most certainly due to initial selection pool, hiring decisions, selectivity, veteran savviness, relationships, networks, etc.

    In so much as it is due to teacher contracts, who is to say that if that veteran preference is removed, those teachers - rather than transfer within a district - might transfer out of the district, leave public education, or leave the profession entirely? Basically the same result for the school that teacher left.

    In addition, a reason that disproportionately large numbers of new teachers reside at certain schools is not just due to teacher transfers, but due to attrition from the profession entirely caused by factors such as working conditions, lack of professional supports and inadequate pay.

    One mistake made by teacher distribution commentators and analysts is to assume that inequity in distribution is created solely by teacher transfers or by a combination of transfer and low-quality selection at the front end. Clearly, there are also inequities during the hiring and recruitment period. Likewise, depending on how "inequity" is measured, it can also evidence itself over time as teachers in some schools and districts are given opportunities to advance their practice to become more effective, while those in other schools do not.

  3. Reply

    Claus von Zastrow

    June 17, 2009

    Much of the national policy discussion recently has been focused on recruitment rather than retention, largely due to hopes that a new breed of teachers might fix troubled schools.

    There's interesting qualitative research on the Benwood Initiative in Tennessee that demonstrates what a district can do with existing teachers. Give them meaningful support and very well designed embedded professional development, and they can become much more competitive. An Education Sector report on Benwood concluded that the support for existing teachers had a stronger effect than any incentives for attracting new teachers.

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