School & District Management

For Teacher Job Applicants, Study Finds It’s All About Location, Location, Location

By Holly Kurtz — February 28, 2014 4 min read
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As federal, state, and local education officials ponder how to attract effective teachers to job openings at schools that serve low-income students, they might want to consider the results of a pair of recent studies about the supply side of the teacher-labor market.

The separate but complementary studies were spearheaded by Vanderbilt University researchers Mimi Engel and Marisa Cannata. They were unusual in that they examined teachers’ actual behavior as they searched and/or applied for work.

Both found that in teaching, as in real estate, it is all about location.

“The evidence suggests that teachers might be taking what they think they know and saying the South Side of Chicago is like this, the North Side is like this, and applying to schools and neighborhoods based on their perceptions of those neighborhoods,” said Engel.

Along with Brian Jacob of the University of Michigan and F. Chris Curran, also of Vanderbilt, Engel conducted a quantitative analysis of nearly 20,000 people who applied for teaching jobs in 2006 in Chicago Public Schools. New Evidence on Teacher Labor Supply appears in the current issue of the peer-reviewed publication, American Educational Research Journal. (Free access to the full article is available for one month.)

Engel and her co-authors considered the number of job openings per school, the school’s academic performance, the demographics of the student body, the level of neighborhood crime and the distance from the applicant’s home and other factors. They found, as they predicted, that schools serving more low-income and minority students attracted fewer applicants per opening, on average. (However, black and Hispanic teachers were more likely to apply to schools with larger percentages of students who shared their racial or ethnic characteristics.) They found that teachers preferred to work close to home, which they also predicted. What they did not expect was that, even after controlling for all of these factors and more, teachers simply preferred to work in some Chicago neighborhoods more than others. Specifically, the city’s North Side neighborhoods were more popular.

To Engel, this preference for certain neighborhoods above and beyond easily observed characteristics of the neighborhoods themselves and even the schools located there, was the most surprising finding of the study. To help explain this puzzling result, she turned to the work of her colleague, Cannata.

Cannata’s study, Understanding the Teacher Job Search Process: Espoused Preferences and Preferences in Use, appeared in the peer-refereed journal, Teachers College Record in 2010. The research used surveys and interviews to examine the job search processes of 289 newly minted elementary teachers in an unnamed Midwestern metropolitan area in 2006. Like researchers who have studied choice in numerous other contexts, ranging from picking a candidate to vote for to settling upon a washing machine to purchase, she found that most teachers relied on low levels of limited information to select the schools to which they applied. Rather, they focused on perceptions and assumptions related to whether they thought they would feel comfortable working in the district in which the school was located. As such, they focused on applying to districts with which they were already familiar. This meant that, although they said they were seeking an environment in which novice teachers like themselves would receive mentoring and support from school leadership, they actually did not select schools on this basis, either because that information was not available or because they never sought it out.

As one job seeker said: “My assumptions based on what I’ve experienced are that it’s gonna actually be a more white area and a more middle-class to affluent community. Now, I could be wrong and I’m willing to be proved wrong, but at this point, when you have very little information to go on based on schools, I’m using demographics to guide my decisions.”

In other words, observable factors such as location and demographics served as signals that a particular district or school was a desirable place to work.

Considering that many high-need schools are located in areas that job candidates might perceive to be less than desirable, how is a district to attract teachers, much less highly effective teachers, to apply?

Engel suggested the district-level job fairs she studied were probably not the way to go, as they may simply reproduce inequalities, with some participating schools attracting more than 300 applicants and others netting less than five. Rather, she suggested that districts instead zero in on schools that have trouble attracting applicants, either because of perceptions (accurate or inaccurate) about their locations and demographics or because the schools are trying to staff harder-to-fill positions in areas such as math, science, and special education. In order to improve the accuracy of candidate information, Cannata proposed that school districts maintain more extensive online data that might shed light on the things applicants purport to value, such as mentoring programs for novices.

Since minority teachers were more likely to apply to schools with more minority students, and these schools were more likely to attract low numbers of applicants, Engel proposed that districts also might consider stepping up recruitment of black and Hispanic teachers. An additional wrinkle is that Chicago requires public school teachers to live in the city. Engel suggested that ending the requirement might attract more applicants to schools in far-flung outskirts because residents of the city’s inner-ring suburbs would not find the locations to be inconvenient. Finally, both papers proposed expanding teacher residency programs and similar efforts that target people who want to teach in certain areas or work with specific populations.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.