Teaching Profession Opinion

An Urban Legend—Literally

By Antonia Cortese & F. Howard Nelson — December 12, 2006 6 min read
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For years, many educators and policymakers have voiced concern that a disproportionate number of inexperienced and less-qualified teachers work in urban, high-poverty schools. Some have argued that collectively bargained agreements give senior teachers greater transfer rights. The Hoover Institution’s Terry M. Moe, for example, asserts that “hard evidence or no, there are compelling reasons for thinking that transfer rights should have profoundly negative effects on the schools.” Transfer rights, he says, “give senior teachers much more latitude in choosing where to teach, and they can be expected to use it to leave … schools filled with disadvantaged kids.” “In districts with transfer rules,” he concludes, “disadvantaged schools should find themselves burdened with even more inexperienced teachers than they otherwise would.”

—Bob Dahm


Likewise, the researcher Paul T. Hill argues that “teacher preferences dictate the assignment of teachers across schools within a district. Teacher preferences are usually honored according to seniority, frequently backed up by labor contracts. The most senior … teachers very often receive their preference to be assigned to schools with the fewest teaching challenges. The greenest teachers … are generally assigned to schools that are struggling.”

But are these assertions correct? In “The Impact of Collective Bargaining on Teacher Transfer Rates in Urban High-Poverty Schools,” our research data provide a clear answer: No. Such false assumptions distract from the debate that America needs to have about how to improve schools that serve children in poor urban communities.

Using data from the 1999-2000 Schools and Staffing Survey, compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics, and the companion 2000-01 Teacher Follow-up Survey (the most recent data from the federal survey available to independent researchers), we found that teachers who work under a collectively bargained agreement are less likely to transfer to another school than teachers who do not have a collectively bargained agreement. This is especially true of teachers in high-poverty urban schools (those in which at least 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch programs): Just 8.4 percent of teachers in states with extensive collective bargaining transferred to another school or district in 2000-01, compared with 13 percent of teachers in states without collective bargaining.

The percentage of teachers who are transferring is not the only or even the most important issue. The real question is this: Who fills the vacancy when a teacher does transfer?

Of course, the percentage of teachers who are transferring is not the only or even the most important issue. The real question is this: Who fills the vacancy when a teacher does transfer? Moe and Hill have asserted that teachers have a strong preference for working in affluent schools and neighborhoods, and that their seniority-based transfer rights enable them to do so. This, they argue, is devastating for high-poverty urban schools, because such schools must then hire (and soon thereafter lose) inexperienced teachers.

Once again, the data contradict the proposition that high-poverty schools are much more likely to hire first-year teachers and that a collectively bargained agreement exacerbates the problem.

The percentage of first-year teachers in public schools is small, and the figure for high-poverty schools (4 percent) is about the same as for low-poverty schools (5 percent). The small size of these numbers and the relatively small difference between them suggest that the rhetoric surrounding the distribution of first-year teachers is overheated.

Further, the presence of a collectively bargained agreement correlates with a lower probability that high-poverty schools will fill their vacancies with inexperienced teachers. In urban districts with a collective bargaining agreement, low-poverty schools (6.1 percent) are about as likely as high-poverty schools (5.7 percent) to replace transferring teachers with first-year teachers. In urban districts without a collective bargaining agreement, however, high-poverty schools hire first-year teachers at three times the rate of low-poverty schools (10.1 percent vs. 3.3 percent).

Not surprisingly, those who have exaggerated or misunderstood teacher transfers have also seized upon the wrong solutions. One so-called solution is to mandate teacher transfers, but that would lead to unintended consequences. Staffing problems in high-poverty urban schools could worsen because teachers can always quit teaching or transfer to another district. Plenty do now; approximately 50 percent of teachers who transferred out of urban high-poverty schools moved to a different district. The within-district voluntary-transfer rate in high-poverty urban schools where teachers work under a collective bargaining agreement was 4 percent—just one in 25 teachers.

What will be even more surprising to critics of collective bargaining is how many teachers transfer into high-poverty schools. In urban districts with collective bargaining, high-poverty schools are more likely (4.4 percent) to hire transfers from within the district than are low-poverty schools (2.4 percent).

At the root of the urban legend about teacher transfers is a profound misunderstanding of teacher motivation. The idea that experienced teachers seek to leave schools with disadvantaged children has about as much logic as the idea that surgeons avoid patients with the most serious health problems. Just as surgeons want to work in a well-administered facility that has more than adequate resources, teachers want to be in schools where they have the tools and conditions to be effective.

According to Schools and Staffing Survey, the reasons for transferring cited by teachers in hard-pressed urban schools are similar to the reasons cited by teachers leaving other schools. For both, the main reason for transferring to another school was “the opportunity to teach a different grade or subject.” Teachers in urban high-poverty schools, however, reported higher dissatisfaction with administrative support and working conditions than did other teachers.

Teacher altruism is not the only reason for low transfer rates. Ask almost any teacher today, and he or she will tell you that it is very difficult to get a transfer.

Although there are some exceptions, the thorough review of 16 collective bargaining agreements included in our teacher-transfer study revealed that teachers who seek within-district transfers often have to be selected by the principal or a site-based committee of teachers, parents, and administrators. Few bargained agreements guarantee a senior teacher an interview for a vacant position, and even fewer allow a teacher to fill the position on seniority alone.

As these data demonstrate, collective bargaining agreements neither cause nor exacerbate staffing problems in urban high-poverty schools. If anything, collective bargaining is associated with reduced teacher mobility and a more equitable distribution of first-year teachers among low- and high-poverty schools.

The focus of reform efforts needs to shift to a real solution to the problem of staffing urban high-poverty schools: How do we attract and retain teachers in urban schools?

We believe that ensuring a professional, respected, high-quality teaching staff for every school should be the highest priority. To make substantial progress in increasing the supply of qualified teachers ready to teach in urban schools, it is crucial that we address teachers’ real and measurable concerns: school and neighborhood safety; orderly schools; attractive, clean, and well-stocked schools and classrooms; professional and administrative support; reasonable workloads; and appropriate class sizes.

A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2006 edition of Education Week as An Urban Legend—Literally


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