The Job-Seekers

Hiring practices keep good teachers away from city schools, but teachers’ own preferences also influence where they end up.

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How do recruitment and hiring practices affect the nationwide pattern of underexperienced and underqualified teachers disproportionately winding up at the schools facing the greatest challenges?

Education Week took a look at that question from the perspective of teachers who are jobhunting. We followed a dozen job searches in the Cleveland metropolitan area last summer, and we report here on seven.

In our small sample, all but one candidate was new to the profession. By design, each was a promising or a proven instructor with a solid academic background, successful prior experience with children, and a thoughtful approach to his or her craft.

Within that context, the major questions became: Did these people, whose experiences are described later in this section, want to go to schools and districts where the needs were high? And, if the desire was there, were such districts able to snag them?

Critics have long maintained that the tangled and outmoded hiring processes in many big-city districts, in particular, contribute to their difficulty in finding highly qualified teachers.

'We don't know the true nature of the teacher shortage because so many people are dissuaded from taking jobs.in these cities because of the bureaucracies involved," suggests Michelle Rhee, the chief executive officer of the New Teacher Project, a New York City-based nonprofit group that works with districts to improve recruitment practices. "We would say: 'Clean the house first. Make everything as efficient as possible.'"

The experience of our applicants does indeed suggest that big, urban districts have to work harder to keep their recruitment and hiring practices from being a barrier to getting the best people. At least equally difficult for districts to overcome may be teachers' own preferences.

In a society in which most people now live in the suburbs, and the term "inner city" is synonymous with danger and intractable woes, many teachers don't even want to go downtown--much less feel prepared to deal with the real problems found there.

Public relations campaigns for city schools, upbeat brochures touting the excitement of city living, more efficient and effective hiring--all those tactics are likely to come up short if cities remain sinkholes in many minds, and if the schools in question can't provide environments that promise real learning.

In our sample, we found that when teachers with other choices do pick a district where most students are poor and members of minority groups, their preferences are often rooted in a commitment to the local community and the people there.

Andratesha Munn, a standout master's-degree student who accepted a job in the East Cleveland district, one of the state's poorest, feels a calling to work with children who have grown up black and urban, as she did. Allison Hauserman, a middle-aged white woman, has made her home in Cleveland for more than 20 years, learning the byways of her husband's hometown and working at jobs in which she rubbed elbows with people from many walks of life. Her first choice for a teaching job was the politically battered Cleveland district, and she is teaching there this year.

Contrast their outcomes with those of several others, who thought about city jobs but ultimately shied away. Either the commute into the city from their suburban residences or the potential challenges of a large district where a disproportionate number of the children are poor and black kept those able white teachers closer to home. In two cases, the fact that they even thought about working in an urban district owes something to their positive student-teaching experiences in schools within or close to the Cleveland city limits.

Many candidates for teaching jobs head right for schools like the suburban ones they attended. Lyndsay Dimengo looked to the places where she already had connections. Dimengo is teaching this year in the Jackson district south of Akron, where her aunt lives and not far from where she grew up.

Even a program like Cleveland State University's 3-year-old Master's in Urban Secondary Teaching, which specializes in grounding teachers for a city experience, doesn't send all its graduates to high-poverty schools. Nor, given its time and tuition commitment, does it attract many African-American students, though the high-poverty districts it was set up to serve enroll large proportions of them.

Out of the 20-member class that included Tesha Munn and Allison Hauserman, just three students were African-American.

Size Matters

Yet lack of interest in urban teaching is not the only obstacle to filling the ranks with well-qualified instructors. Young, mobile teachers who might be drawn to city life and city schools often face an impersonal or sluggish system that prompts them to go elsewhere.

Some of the turnoffs aspiring teachers face are linked to district size. Carol Hauser, the personnel head of the Cleveland district, points to a stunning statistic: In 1998, 605 of Ohio's 611 school districts had fewer teachers overall than the 260 that Cleveland hired.

The scale of the work in urban districts makes it harder to move nimbly. When the 5,800-student East Cleveland schools heard that student-teacher Munn was interviewing next door in the 74,000-student Cleveland district, officials of the smaller but poorer district successfully scrambled to sign her up.

Size also tends to give an impersonal cast to the proceedings. After an interview with a recruiter led recent college graduate Heather Penny to believe the Cleveland district was seriously interested in her, she was surprised--and irked--when no one told her that her paper application had become outmoded. (The district had switched to an online system.) Later, she felt lost in a mass meeting with principals.

Penny, who is teaching this year in a rural district near Wooster, Ohio, also ran into a problem that bedevils many urban districts: the comparatively late date at which Cleveland might have been able to make her a job offer.

While urban districts plod through contract provisions that reserve jobs for teachers already in the system, beg veterans to decide early whether they are retiring, and try to keep track of hundreds of openings, smaller districts snap up new hires.

The shifting sands of urban districts' budgets further complicate and delay the tough job of forecasting the number of openings. A candidate with a strong commitment to urban schools may find the patience and stamina to stick through such uncertainties, but a young person anxious to be hired may go with the offer that comes first.

Job-Seekers' Misperceptions

Salaries make a difference, of course, but the effect is often muted for young, beginning teachers.

Veteran teacher Rebecca Ferrell balked at one more year of her Lutheran-school salary, several thousand dollars less than she would have earned in a Cleveland public school. But even she decided to stay put rather than go to a doubtful situation. Several in the Education Week group, such as 36-year-old beginner Michelle Flanagan, said they didn't pay much attention to the pay differences between public school districts. Flanagan figured she would make between $27,000 and $30,000 wherever she started in the area. She landed in the small city of Elyria, which will pay her around $29,000.

On the other hand, among the several reasons 23- year-old Robert Ristau gave for accepting a position as a teacher's aide in the Beachwood district rather than seeking a job as a teacher in Cleveland or elsewhere was future money. If Ristau steps up to the teacher's job for which he is certified in Beachwood, his beginning salary will probably top $34,000.

Research by Susan Moore Johnson, a professor at Harvard University's graduate school of education, suggests that salaries are more likely to influence male teachers than female ones. Age and experience may be important, too.

Elizabeth L. Useem, the head of research at the Philadelphia Education Fund, is finding that pay is less important to new teachers than those with a few years of experience. "Money seems to be emerging as a big issue after three years," she says, noting that both the press of college debts and the need to pay graduate school tuition are factors.

Unlike salary, general working conditions--skilled administrators, safe and orderly surroundings, students whose basic needs are being met--often make or break potential deals. Such considerations also place a premium on candidates' ability to select not just a district but a school. In that respect, Cleveland was handicapped because some candidates were unclear that, for the most part, the schools do their own hiring after an initial screening by the central office.

The experiences of the job candidates we followed suggest that urban districts can hire top-notch talent. But the availability of such talent is likely to remain relatively rare in the current climate of urban schools. Changes in the hiring process will help. So will broader cooperation with teacher-training institutions, which through student teaching provide the person-to-person contacts that often lead to successful matches.

Districts like Cleveland that have overhauled their recruitment and hiring practices with an eye to boosting the number of licensed teachers they need are making headway. And they seem to be avoiding some of the Kafkaesque procedural snarls of the past, which saw teachers passionate about urban youngsters tromping off to greener pastures.

But it will be hard for many districts to take the next step toward quality without more competition in the urban teacher market. To create that, administrators will have to do a better job of finding aspiring teachers who are comfortable in the city. But even then, the task may be overwhelming unless the lot of cities improves or a crusade for highly qualified teachers catches fire.

In that campaign, there would be no escaping that urban schools have to become better places to work with higher pay, says Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents most of the nation's urban teaching force.

"Teachers want to feel safe; they want to feel they have a supportive and pleasant environment... and they need to feel they can turn to people for support for their students," Feldman says. "You must have the environmental factors, or teachers will look elsewhere."

Vol. 22, Issue 17, Page 41-42, 44

Published in Print: January 9, 2003, as The Job-Seekers
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