Recruitment & Retention

City Schools Hire Teachers With Stronger Credentials

By Bess Keller — July 16, 2007 7 min read
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Some of the nation’s largest school districts have begun to see upticks in the academic qualifications of teachers they bring on board—only to face what may be a tougher challenge in keeping them, recent research on teacher-hiring patterns suggests.

Studies involving Chicago, New York City, and Philadelphia, for instance, all provide evidence that teachers hired by those districts most recently have stronger academic backgrounds on average than teachers hired in the 1990s.

Under pressure from the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s teacher-quality provisions and with the focus of school improvement more than ever on the people in the classroom, many urban districts have stepped up their recruitment efforts and raised their standards.

As a result, administrators in those districts and researchers say, they have fewer teachers without standard licenses. Among those with substandard licenses, the vast majority are enrolled in programs that will lead to an upgrade.

And for certain popular jobs—in elementary schools with decent standardized-test scores, say, or in high school social studies—the number of applicants has increased severalfold, allowing principals to be pickier, the officials say.

Some of the strongest evidence of better qualifications may come from researchers in Illinois. A report issued last month by the Illinois Education Research Council , at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, found that Chicago and other urban districts in the state were recruiting teachers “with stronger academic qualifications than in the past—now on a par with other Illinois locales and regions.”

The paper used results from the ACT college-entrance examination and the selectiveness of undergraduate institutions to gauge such qualifications. From 1997 to 2006, for example, the proportion of teachers hired in Chicago with ACT scores in the highest quartile almost doubled, according to the authors.

But if that is good news for the Windy City, it came with a warning: Teachers with relatively strong academic backgrounds are more likely to leave disadvantaged schools, the scholars conclude.

As the number recruited to such schools rises, the report predicts, “we can expect attrition rates [there] to increase unless other conditions for working and learning also improve.”

Concerns, Not Crisis

That finding about attrition was striking, given that authors Karen J. DeAngelis and Jennifer B. Presley argue with the notion that the share of teachers leaving the profession is at a crisis level. In Illinois, they write, roughly a quarter of beginners quit teaching within five years, not the half claimed nationally, for example, in a 2003 report from the National Council for Teaching and America’s Future.

Still, new teachers leave some specific schools at rates the researchers call alarming. Sometimes, they are quitting the profession, but more often they are switching schools.

Urban Attrition

Grouping Illinois public school teachers by job movements in their first five years shows variety in their academic backgrounds by category.


*Accepted a nonteaching position in Illinois public schools

SOURCE: Illinois Education Research Council

The Illinois study shows that of the schools with the worst scores on state tests, half lost almost four out of five new teachers after five years. Attrition was similar or worse in a smaller proportion of schools where most students were from poor or minority backgrounds.

The researchers found, too, that new hires who had attended more selective colleges and had higher scores on college-entrance exams than other teachers were less likely to stick around schools with any of those characteristics.

Chicago school officials say they welcome the challenge. “That’s a great problem to have,” argued Nancy Slavin, the director of recruitment for the 415,000-student district. “If you bring in quality people, they are going to expect more, and that’s exactly what we want them to do.”

The long-term answer, Ms. Slavin says, is more support for new teachers and attention to school culture, which can make or break teachers’ experience even in schools that face enormous disadvantages.

To that end, her office “tracks very carefully who’s moving and where they are moving,” she said, “so that senior management can look carefully to see what issues there are” in individual schools and fix them.

More Astute Hiring

In Philadelphia, researchers have also reported likely improvements in the academic quality of incoming teachers.

From fall 2003 to fall 2006, the number of teachers with either standard licenses or enrolled in programs that lead to such licenses rose from just under 90 percent to just over 95 percent, according to a report from Research for Action . That local group issued the report this spring.

Fully licensed teachers and teachers on their way to being licensed through an alternative route have been replacing those with emergency certification, many of whom failed a licensure test of basic skills.

Alternative-route teachers constituted about a third of the new Philadelphia teachers hired last fall, and the two largest such programs are run by highly selective national organizations, Teach For America and the New Teacher Project, the report says.

Turnover in the 179,000-student Philadelphia district is high. The researchers found that, districtwide, a little over two out of three teachers hired in the 1999-2000 school year were no longer working in the system after five years. And only about 20 percent were still in their initial schools, the report says.

It may be that school districts that are larger than Philadelphia, such as Chicago, have a size advantage that keeps more teachers in the district, even though they switch schools.

Elizabeth Useem and Ruth Curran Neild, who worked on the Philadelphia report, speculated that the size of the salary gap between Philadelphia and suburban school districts, along with a particularly high local poverty rate, might account for some of the difference.

N.Y.C. Turnover

Researchers working with New York teacher data have found evidence that the academic backgrounds of teachers in New York City public schools have also improved in recent years.

During the years 1999 to 2005, the number of uncertified teachers in the 1.1 million-student district declined. Meanwhile, the number of teachers seeking certification through a structured program has risen.

More than a quarter of the new hires came through an alternative route, principally the New York City Teaching Fellows initiative. Like the similar program in Philadelphia run by the New Teacher Project, the New York venture places participants, called “fellows,” who already have bachelor’s degrees, in classrooms with just a summer of preparation.

Researchers led by Thomas J. Kane of the graduate school of education at Harvard University found in research published last year as a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research that, on average, the fellows’ scores on the mathematics portion of the SAT college-entrance examination ranked them at the 68th percentile, while certified teachers hired in the same five years ranked only at the 59th.

Members of Teach For America, the Peace Corps-like program that asks for two years of service and recruits at highly selective colleges, had even higher average scores.

And teaching fellows are no more likely to leave than regularly certified teachers in their first four years, the researchers found. About half of each group stays.

Teach For America recruits do, however, depart at a significantly higher rate, with only about 18 percent remaining in the district after four years. Interestingly, the researchers calculate that even with the higher turnover, the district comes out about even in its capacity to raise student test scores because of what they say is the greater effectiveness of the TFA members compared with regularly certified teachers.

New York City district leaders, spurred partly by a 2004 state policy change requiring mentoring, set up a $36 million program for all their first-year teachers in cooperation with the New Teacher Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

The program, which has undergone an overhaul, is now in its third year. Results are going in the right direction, said Amy McIntosh, the chief talent officer for the district, although it is too soon to ascribe them to the program. For instance, 10.7 percent of teachers new to the district left voluntarily in 2005-06, when the mentoring program was up to speed, compared with 11.7 the previous year, Ms. McIntosh said.

Coupled with mentoring, she added, was the district’s drive to identify teachers who are successful in raising student achievement, which Mr. Kane’s research suggests is not closely linked to teachers’ academic background.

“We have not cracked the code on that by any means,” Ms. McIntosh said.

Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2007 edition of Education Week as City Schools Hire Teachers With Stronger Credentials


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