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Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Closing the Staffing Gap

By Antonia Cortese & Claus Von Zastrow — January 17, 2006 8 min read

— Bob Dahm

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The persistent academic achievement gaps between poor and wealthy children are an affront to our nation’s ideals and a serious threat to its future prosperity. While the effects of poverty on families and children contribute to these gaps, we help perpetuate them by failing to guarantee all students access to highly experienced and capable educators. In fact, our poorest, most vulnerable students—those who most need our assistance—are least likely to attend schools with fully qualified staff members. By giving to the rich while withholding from the poor, we carry on a long legacy of inequality that has severely restricted lifetime opportunities for millions of poor and minority children. If educators and policymakers are truly committed to closing the achievement gap, we must work together to close the staffing gap.

The statistics on this gap are startling. Teachers in high-poverty, low-performing schools are about two-thirds more likely than teachers in other schools to lack certification, and almost twice as likely to have three or fewer years of experience. What’s more, mathematics, English, and social-studies classes in high-poverty high schools are more than 70 percent more likely to be taught by out-of-field teachers. The available evidence points to similar inequities in student access to the most-qualified principals.

Why the disparities? High-poverty, low-performing schools fight a constant uphill battle to recruit and retain teachers and principals. They have more trouble attracting enough experienced applicants, lose staff at a much higher rate (over one in five teachers every year), and must fill vacancies again and again with less-qualified candidates. Many rely heavily on teachers with emergency certification.

The causes of these problems are no great mystery: We stack the deck against teachers and leaders in those schools. We force them to clear high bureaucratic hurdles throughout the hiring process, and we do not train them for the challenges they will face if hired. We deny them the working conditions and support any other professional would expect as a matter of course, and then we fail to compensate them adequately. Finally, we shortchange their students through public school funding practices that maintain long-standing inequities between poor and wealthy schools.

Like devoted professionals in any field, teachers and principals seek workplaces where they can do their jobs well and improve over time. We must therefore make today’s high-poverty, low-performing schools the kinds of places where our best educators will want to work.

If we're serious about attracting the best teachers and leaders to hard-to-staff schools—and keeping them there—we have to offer better financial and professional incentives.

To do that, educators, policymakers, and communities must collaborate to tackle the staffing problem on multiple fronts. The Learning First Alliance—a partnership of 11 major national education associations representing teachers, principals, superintendents, school board members, teacher education colleges, curriculum developers, and parents—has embarked on such a collaboration.

The first fruits of this effort appear in a June 2005 report, “A Shared Responsibility: Staffing All High-Poverty, Low-Performing Schools With Effective Teachers and Administrators,” which lays out a framework for closing the staffing gap. This framework responds to a singular opportunity: Research has brought this gap’s multiple causes and potential solutions into sharper focus than ever before, equipping us to move beyond piecemeal efforts to improve hiring and retention. In that spirit, the framework proposes broad, systemic changes across eight interrelated areas:

Improve school leadership. High-poverty, low-performing schools often lack the strong, supportive leadership that helps attract and retain excellent staff members in more-affluent schools. Teachers who leave jobs in hard-to-staff schools are more likely to cite poor leadership than any other workplace-related reason for doing so.

To improve school leadership, we must of course remove truly ineffective principals. Yet we also need to improve the lot of school leaders in general by offering them greater authority, resources, support, and mentoring, and by promoting teacher leadership as an essential component of school leadership.

Improve working conditions. Basic working conditions in high-poverty, low-performing schools are often far worse than those any professional should be asked to tolerate. Even excellent principals and teachers struggle when faced with crumbling buildings, scarce resources, intrusions on instructional time, inadequate preparation time, and student discipline problems—all challenges that, according to recent surveys, drive up staff turnover in high-poverty schools. Absent concrete and widespread measures to address these problems, teachers and leaders can justly question our commitment to their success.

Provide more and better professional support. New teachers in high-poverty, low-performing schools are typically assigned the most challenging students, often without the benefit of formal mentoring programs. Similarly, new principals in the most challenging schools frequently receive scant professional support. To make matters worse, schools in disadvantaged communities often have fewer qualified support staff to help teachers and principals meet their students’ especially daunting educational and social needs. Whether novice or experienced, those who work in these schools require far better mentoring, professional development, and access to support staff.

Create incentives to work in challenging schools. Teachers and administrators see little to offset the disincentives to working in disadvantaged schools. Low salaries drive teachers out of high-poverty urban schools. Less tangible professional benefits, like respect and professional status, generally go to staffs in wealthy, high-performing schools.

If we’re serious about attracting the best teachers and leaders to hard-to-staff schools—and keeping them there—we have to offer better financial incentives. Just as important, we have to raise the profile of those jobs by publicly praising and rewarding the dedication and achievements of the people who take them on.

Improve preparation for work in challenging schools. Too many teachers and leaders come to their jobs unprepared for real-life work in challenging schools and classrooms. Federal survey data reveal that over 40 percent of teachers do not feel prepared to handle classroom management and discipline, for example. Similarly, principals commonly question the relevance of formal leadership education programs to the actual rigors of the job.

The problem of inadequate preparation is all the more acute in high-poverty schools, which often present additional—and unique—professional challenges. Though some teacher- and principal-preparation programs have begun specifically preparing candidates for work in such environments, many still offer one-size-fits-all training. Instead, preparation programs should work with poor districts and schools to equip teachers and principals to serve our most vulnerable students’ needs.

Streamline hiring and placement policies. Counterproductive hiring and placement practices can discourage qualified teachers from seeking jobs in disadvantaged schools. Such problems can have multiple causes: cumbersome application processes, poor customer service, insufficient data systems for tracking vacancies and candidates, high student-mobility rates that create difficulties in forecasting vacancies, late notification deadlines for departing teachers, and late budgeting. Whatever the causes, the results are often devastating for low-income students. Hiring and placement can take so long that qualified candidates simply give up and take jobs elsewhere.

Districts need more-efficient hiring processes with accountability for meeting clear hiring goals. In addition, teacher unions and school boards must cooperate to reduce barriers to early hiring, including late vacancy notifications and transfer policies that can prevent principals from hiring the most-qualified candidates. By the same token, both groups must also work together to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom.

Create a coherent set of policies to close the staffing gap. We lack a coherent set of federal, state, and local policies to close the staffing gap. Despite recent incentive and recruitment programs in some states and districts, research reveals that even districts with a reputation for improving instructional quality have pursued few aggressive measures to address staffing problems in high-need schools. Indeed, some education policies worsen staffing problems: Ill-designed testing and accountability policies can, for example, create further disincentives to work in hard-to-staff schools. To avoid such perverse incentives, we must consciously align all our education policies with the staffing challenge.

Provide greater funding targeted to student needs. Even the best-designed policies to close the staffing gap will likely founder on shocking funding inequities. On average, our nation’s high-poverty districts receive less funding—almost 1,400 fewer state and local tax dollars per student—than do low-poverty districts. If anything, this figure probably understates the problem, because most district-level spending data obscure the large extent to which districts further shortchange their high-poverty schools. Given the challenges faced by students in these schools, such practices defy common sense.

We must guarantee once and for all that public school funding is adequate, equitable, and based on student needs, with our most vulnerable students receiving the greatest resources. This is, no doubt, a tall order. More to the point, it faces tough political obstacles: Schools with the poorest students almost always have the least political clout, and calls to increase funding or reallocate resources among schools are sure to meet with fierce opposition.

Yet money does matter, provided that we invest it in strategies that make sense for all our students and then hold ourselves accountable for results. Such strategies must address the school staffing gap on multiple fronts at once, and their success will depend on unwavering cooperation between many education stakeholders. Most important, they will require difficult sacrifices from educators, policymakers, and communities alike, as we place the interests of our most vulnerable children above our own.

As the Learning First Alliance’s framework demonstrates, we know how to close the staffing gap. Now all of us must work together to make it happen.

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