Equity and Teacher Hiring

It seems I’ve read quite a bit about teacher shortages around the country this year. There are a number of factors involved. A stronger economy means higher paying options for would-be teachers. A demographic bubble of educators is beginning to retire. In blogs and social media, I’ve seen suggestions that teacher prep programs are seeing lower enrollment in part because the national media and policy debates have demonstrated that teachers are held in low regard overall, which discourages potential teachers from joining the profession. However, shortages are not showing up across the board for all ages and subjects in school, and not in all geographic areas. Ross Brenneman gives a good sense of the complexities in this EdWeek article. If you want more examples and a healthy dose of opinion about the problems, check out Peter Greene’s compendium on this topic.

Meanwhile, yesterday was the day at my school when we go through our annual ritual of welcoming new teachers. I’m always impressed by the people we hire. A large majority of them over the years have been experienced teachers coming to us from other districts. When we hire first-time teachers, there’s a good chance they have other professional experience that enhances our staff. And when we hire first-time teachers without prior careers in other fields, that select few tends to include people with unique skills – like the time we hired a newbie English teacher who also happened to have a computer science bachelor’s degree from Stanford, along with his bachelor’s degree in English and master’s degree in Education.

DSC_0021.JPGHow do we do it? Simple. We pay more than most of the districts that we’re pulling people away from. We offer better working conditions, facilities, equipment, supplies – everything teachers need to be successful. All the advantages money can buy.

That doesn’t mean everyone likes teaching in my district, or that every teacher turns out to be as great as we anticipated. And it doesn’t mean that teachers in struggling districts are ineffective or undesirable. Far from it – in my visits to schools all over California this year, I found brilliant and dedicated teachers working in all sorts of schools and districts. Teachers are called to teaching in a variety of settings. But from the hiring side, it’s nice to have enticements that give you more choices.

I write this not to boast – it’s not like I can claim any credit for my community’s resources anyway. I offer this post as an effort to agitate for change. When policy makers, educators, and reformers talk about ambitious goals for students in poverty, students at the wrong end of the so-called achievement gap, they are often ready to tell schools and teachers what to do to solve the problems, but pretty short on ideas for closing the equity and opportunity gaps that stack the odds against schools and teachers that have the hardest work to do. Fortunately, there have been some recent changes to enhance school funding for needy schools, and to close our Prop 13 loophole that for decades has shifted the state’s tax burden increasingly onto families and away from large businesses. (Read more about it here). The incremental changes here and there won’t entirely close the gap, but that’s no reason to refrain from the effort to move in the right direction.

3 thoughts on “Equity and Teacher Hiring

  1. Nice post! I would, however, like to make an addition to the following paragraph:

    “How do we do it? Simple. We pay more than most of the districts that we’re pulling people away from. We offer better working conditions, facilities, equipment, supplies – everything teachers need to be successful. All the advantages money can buy.”

    I also think student population plays a huge role in recruitment. There are definitely challenges for teachers at schools that serve predominantly-privileged students, but those challenges are distinct and in my view less emotionally-intensive than those for teachers who teach at schools serving more disadvantaged populations. Teachers in a “high-income” school, for example, don’t need to worry about whether their students will have access to dinner, or whether they’ll be safe on their walks home from school.

    In my view, we’ll be unable to equalize the teacher supply at these two types of schools if working conditions and salaries at the two broad types of schools are the same; working conditions and salaries need to be better at “low-income” schools.

    1. Thanks, Ben. I appreciate your adding some depth that I missed in cranking this post out. I might add on to your comment as well, that another way to think about the student population issue is that teachers – like anyone engaged in challenging and complex work – want to be effective. I do know teachers who prefer working with more challenging, higher-need students, because that’s where they feel more effective. Think about teachers who love alternative schools, continuation schools, hospital schools, correctional facilities. Having spoken to teachers who like working those kinds of settings, the reason they stay is that they know they’re making a difference. They have the skill set, the connection, and the resources and support to be effective in those settings, despite the challenges students are bearing, and bringing to the situation. They won’t be lured to the cushy suburbs by slightly higher pay if they don’t feel like they’d be needed or effective. So, to your point, the student population certainly matters for a teacher like me, but for the same reason. I thrive where I am because I also feel effective, and my chances at effectiveness are boosted by the advantages my students bring. I have no problem with the suggestion that we need to go beyond equalizing pay and resources and actually tip the scales in favor of more challenged schools, however.

      1. For sure! I certainly agree with the notion that many teachers find themselves drawn to working with higher-need students – for example, most of my own K-12 teaching experience was at a community day school, and wanting to work with less privileged kids was a large part of what drew me to Teach For America (something that was also true for most people I knew in the corps).

        I also agree with the “teachers want to feel effective” point, a point I find especially germane in light of the approach to teacher evaluation that so many education commentators advocate. While there are many reasons that the use of student test score data as a defined percentage of teacher evaluations is a terrible idea (for those who haven’t seen it, here’s a primer: http://34justice.com/2015/08/19/is-vam-a-sham-depends-on-the-question-youre-asking/), one of them is that test score metrics can discourage teachers from working with higher-need students.

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