School & District Management

Philadelphia Study: Teacher Transfers Add to Educational Inequities

By Debra Viadero — April 18, 2001 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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?”

Related Tags:

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


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Whole Child Approach to Supporting Positive Student Behavior 
To improve student behavior, it’s important to look at the root causes. Social-emotional learning may play a preventative role.

A whole child approach can proactively support positive student behaviors.

Join this webinar to learn how.
Content provided by Panorama
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Why Retaining Education Leaders of Color Is Key for Student Success
Today, in the United States roughly 53 percent of our public school students are young people of color, while approximately 80 percent of the educators who lead their classrooms, schools, and districts are white. Racial
Jobs January 2022 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management 3 Ways School Districts Can Ease the Pain of Supply Chain Chaos
Have a risk management plan, pay attention to what's happening up the supply chain, and be adaptable when necessary.
3 min read
Cargo Ship - Supply Chain with products such as classroom chairs, milk, paper products, and electronics
iStock/Getty Images Plus
School & District Management Vulnerable Students, Districts at Greater Risk as Natural Disasters Grow More Frequent
New federal research indicates the harm from fires and storms to school facilities, learning, and mental health is disproportionate.
4 min read
Helina Thorp, right, 14, expresses frustration while unsuccessfully trying to log in to her school distance-learning classes in Placerville, Calif., after Pacific Gas & Electric intentionally shut off power to prevent wildfires amid high winds in September 2020.
Helina Thorp, right, 14, expresses frustration while unsuccessfully trying to log in to her school distance-learning classes in Placerville, Calif., after Pacific Gas & Electric shut off power to prevent wildfires amid high winds in September 2020.
Daniel Kim/The Sacramento Bee via AP
School & District Management Opinion What It Takes for Universities to Conduct Useful Education Research
Many institutions lack the resources to make research-school partnerships successful, warns Thomas S. Dee.
Thomas S. Dee
3 min read
Illustration of coworkers collaborating.
School & District Management Opinion Trust Keeps Our School-Research Relationship Alive in the Pandemic
An educator and a researcher describe how their team was able to nudge forward a plan for equity even as COVID changed almost everything.
Katherine Mortimer & Scott Gray
3 min read
Illustration of coworkers analyzing data.