How do we attract the best teachers to struggling schools?

November 13, 2014

There are some basic facts about the teacher labor market that are inconvenient for many folks working to improve education. I am going to go through a few premises that I think should be broadly accepted and several lemma and contentions that I hope clarifies my own view on education resources and human capital management.

Teaching in low performing schools is challenging.

If I am looking for a job, all else being equal, I will generally not choose the more challenging one.

Some may object to the idea that teachers would not accept a position that offers a greater opportunity to make a difference, for example, teaching at an inner city school, over one that was less likely to have an impact, like teaching in a posh, suburban neighborhood. It is certainly true that some teachers, if not most teachers place value on making a greater impact. However, the question is how great is that preference? How much less compensation (not just wage) would the median teacher be willing to take to work in a more challenging environment?

I contend that it is atypical for teachers to accept lower compensation for a more challenging job. I would further suggest that even if there were a sufficient number of teachers to staff all urban schools with those that would accept lower compensation for a position in those schools, the gap in compensation that they would accept is low.

There are large gaps in non-pecuniary compensation between high performing school and low performing schools that is difficult to overcome.

Let us supposed that it’s true there are large parts of the teacher workforce that would accept lower compensation (wage and non-wage) to teach in urban schools. There are real benefits to taking on a role where the potential for impact is great.

However, we can consider this benefit as part of the hedonic wages supplied by a teaching role. Other forms of non-monetary compensation that teachers may experience include: a comfortable physical work environment with sufficient space, lighting, and climate control; sufficient supplies to teach effectively; support and acceptance of their students, their families, and the broader school communities; a safe work environment; job security; alignment to a strong, unified school culture; and strong self-efficacy.

Some of these features could be easily replicated in many low performing schools. It is possible to have better quality physical schools and sufficient funding for supplies. Other features can be replicated, but not nearly as easily. Low performing schools where students have complex challenges inside and outside of the classroom are not environments where everyone has a strong sense of self-efficacy. Even the initial sense that making a difference is within reach erodes for many after facing a challenging environment day after day, year after year. A safe environment and a strong school culture are well within reach, but hardly easy and hardly universal. These things should be universal. They require funding, leadership, and broadly successful organizations.

The key is not that all high performing schools always have these features and no low performing schools can or do have these features. What is important is that many of these features are less often found in low performing, particularly urban schools.

I contend that the typical gap in non-pecuniary compensation between high and low performing schools is large enough to wipe out any negative compensating wage differential that may exist due to a desire for greater impact.

The primary mechanism to get “more” education is increasing the quality or quantity of teaching.

Let us take the leap of suggesting that teaching is a key part of the production of education. If we want to improve educational equity and address the needs of low performing schools, we need some combination of more and higher quality teaching. This is a key driver of policies like extended learning time (more), smaller class sizes (more), professional development (better), and teacher evaluation and support systems (better). It is what is behind improving teacher preparation programs (better), alternative certification (better), and progressive support programs like RTI (more and better).