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Recruitment & Retention

Study: Teachers Seek Better Working Conditions

By Debra Viadero — January 09, 2002 4 min read

A recent study suggests that pay raises alone may not be enough of an incentive to attract teachers to hard-to-staff, low-performing schools.

The study, based on three years of data on 375,000 primary school teachers in Texas, looked at the career moves those teachers made from 1993 to 1996. Researchers Eric A. Hanushek, John F. Kain, and Steven G. Rifkin found that teachers, for the most part, moved to classroom jobs paying only slightly more than they were already earning.

The report, “Why Public Schools Lose Teachers,” can be purchased online for $5, from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The greater tendency, the researchers found, was for teachers to switch to schools with fewer minority students, higher test scores, and smaller percentages of poor students.

“People have suggested that maybe you have to pay more for teachers to work in tougher schools,” said Mr. Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “These findings suggest that a lot more attention should be given to working conditions and the preferences of teachers in making policies.”

The research, published in November by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a Cambridge, Mass., research group, is the latest in a series of studies examining the teacher labor market through the increasingly detailed databases that some states are compiling. With reports of teacher shortages growing, questions about how schools can attract and keep qualified teachers have taken on a new urgency, researchers say.

“The data that was available before for asking questions about teachers was usually national data sets, where you follow an individual and see who goes into teaching,” said Susanna Loeb, an assistant professor of education at Stanford University.

She has conducted some of the new studies in New York state. “It’s only recently that we’ve begun to think not only about who goes into teaching, but where they go once they get there.”

For example, the Texas data—developed by the University of Texas at Dallas—offer information on the districts losing and gaining teachers as well as student test scores.

Ms. Loeb and other researchers studying teachers’ career patterns cautioned against interpreting the new findings from that state to mean that teachers don’t want to teach poor or minority students.

Those characteristics, they say, may just be stand-ins for other, unmeasured conditions in the schools the teachers left behind. Those might include, for example, crumbling buildings, unsafe neighborhoods, classes bursting at the seams, or inadequate resources.

Doubling Pay?

“What is the message here is that the challenge of teaching in schools that have large percentages of poor children is greater,” said Richard J. Murnane, a Harvard University professor of education. “Paying people extra money to do an impossible job doesn’t work, and you need to make the jobs doable such that at the end of the day, people feel glad that they’re there.”

For their study, Mr. Hanushek and his colleagues focused on teachers who had been in the field for less than a decade, a group that accounts for three-fourths of all job changes made by teachers in Texas.

Of that group, an average of 79 percent do not change schools at all in the course of a year. Another 14 percent leave Texas public schools altogether, 4 percent switch to another school in the same district, and 3 percent change districts.

According to the study, the relocated teachers, on average, earned only 0.4 percent more at their new jobs— and slightly more when other employment benefits were taken into account.

By comparison, the shift to better-performing, wealthier schools and districts was greater in magnitude. On average, standardized-test scores in the districts to which teachers moved were 3 percentile points higher than those for their previous districts, the study found.

The achievement differences were particularly high for the teachers who left their urban districts for suburban ones, where students scored an average of 14 percentile points higher. The percentage of minority students in those receiving districts was also 15 percent to 20 percent lower.

The pattern appeared to be slightly different, however, for African-American teachers, most of whom tended to stay in districts with greater concentrations of black students.

“Part of the problem is: Is this the preference of black teachers, or do school districts just put black teachers with black kids?” Mr. Hanushek said.

To compensate for conditions that seem to drive teachers away from more troubled schools and systems, Mr. Hanushek and his colleagues figure that districts would have to pay those teachers 20 percent to 50 percent more than their colleagues elsewhere in the state.

That calculation does not take into account changes in working conditions, such as flexible scheduling or school-based management, that might also draw more teachers to difficult schools.

While Mr. Hanushek’s study focused on Texas, other statewide studies of the teacher labor market have been conducted—or are in the works—in North Carolina and New York state. All of the studies reinforce the view that the schools most in need of good teachers are those with either the least experienced or the least qualified teachers.

In a study scheduled to be presented at an economics meeting in Atlanta this month, for example, Helen F. Ladd and her colleagu

es at Duke University in Durham, N.C., note that black 7th graders in that state stand a 35 percent to 45 percent greater chance than their white counterparts of having a novice teacher.

“The ultimate question,” said Ms. Ladd, who is a professor of policy studies and economics at Duke’s Sanford Institute of Public Policy, “is what’s the relationship between where teachers are, and which teachers are in which places, and student achievement.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2002 edition of Education Week as Study: Teachers Seek Better Working Conditions

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