School & District Management

Philadelphia Study: Teacher Transfers Add to Educational Inequities

By Debra Viadero — April 18, 2001 4 min read
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A study of Philadelphia schools confirms what educators have long suspected: Teacher transfers—even when they occur within the same district—can exacerbate educational inequities.

The findings, presented here last week during the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, are based on a study of the employment records of 10,000 teachers working in Philadelphia public schools during the late 1990s.

While experts have long pointed to student-mobility rates as a hindrance to learning, fewer studies have examined mobility rates among teachers. And most of those have focused on teachers who leave urban districts, such as Philadelphia, for higher-paying jobs and better working conditions in the suburbs.

Researcher Mitchell D. Chester chose instead to focus on teacher transfers to schools within the same district. Such movements, whether teachers left their home schools because they wanted to or because school officials asked them to go, accounted for just under half of all the job changes Philadelphia teachers made during the period of the study, from September 1996 to December 1999.

Mr. Chester found that the teachers tended to move to schools with better test scores, lower poverty rates, and lower percentages of minority students.

A more surprising finding was that those patterns held even when teachers, for one reason or another, were being forced to go, rather than opting to move on their own.

“So we were shooting ourselves in the foot,” said Mr. Chester, who is the district’s executive director for accountability and school improvement.

Under the district’s contract with its teachers’ union, teachers who are being asked to transfer out of a school can name five schools with teaching vacancies to which they’d like to move. Central administrators then choose teachers’ new assignments from among those sites. But those decisions also have to take into account the distance between teachers’ homes and their new school assignments.

In cases of voluntary transfers, any teacher with two years’ seniority can apply for a move.

‘More Desirable’ Schools

The “more desirable” schools that teachers ended up in tended to have standardized-test scores that were more than 5 points higher than those in the schools they left behind. They also enrolled 12 percent fewer students from poor families and 12 percent fewer nonwhite students, according to the study.

The research did not show, however, that teachers were heading to schools that were necessarily on the upswing in student achievement and on other indicators measured by the district, Mr. Chester said.

Some of the biggest losers in the job shuffle, the study found, were middle schools. While elementary and high school teachers tended to seek out spots in schools with similar grade configurations, middle school teachers were leaving for entirely different venues. About 20 percent of the transferring teachers began in middle schools, the study discovered, but fewer than 12 percent ended up in them.

“I think it’s the fear of that age group,” Mr. Chester said.

As a result of all teacher movements—intradistrict transfers as well as teachers’ departures from the district or switches to nonteaching jobs—the jobs of one-third of Philadelphia’s teachers turned over during the four school years studied. In middle schools, new hires outnumbered veteran teachers by a ratio of about 2-to-1.

Similar imbalances plague the district’s lower-performing, highest-poverty schools, Mr. Chester said, while principals in the most sought-after schools in the northeastern part of the city complain of having few opportunities to groom new teachers.

“What this transfer process has done is exacerbate inequalities in staffing across the district,” Mr. Chester said, “so that the schools that need the best teachers and the best instruction typically don’t get those teachers and that instruction.”

At the same time, the study turned up a small number of schools that managed to maintain stable staffing patterns despite having predominantly poor and minority student enrollments.

“When you find these exceptions, invariably you find a principal that’s got his or her act together and has created a sense of family and of engagement,” Mr. Chester said.

Although his study is based on data from Philadelphia, Mr. Chester said he expected that the teacher-mobility trends that he found would be typical of most of the nation’s urban school districts.

The district undertook the study to prepare for contract negotiations earlier this year with its teachers’ union. As a result of the findings, the newly approved contract now allows the school district to pay more money to teachers in hard-to-fill subjects and to teachers willing to work in hard-to-staff schools. The district also shortened the time period during which teachers can apply for voluntary transfers.

“There’s a tension between wanting to tell people where to teach and wanting them to teach where they want to,” Mr. Chester said. “The question is: How do you find the right balance?”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2001 edition of Education Week as Philadelphia Study: Teacher Transfers Add to Educational Inequities

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