Should the Worst Schools Get the Best Teachers?

I have an odd hobby -- namely, collecting terrible ideas intended to solve our educational woes. Most, I admit, are pretty run-of-the-mill, but a few are truly museum quality.

What distinguishes them is:

(a) they appear absolutely guaranteed;

(b) no sensible person could oppose them; and

(c) they will not only fail, but also assuredly make matters worse.

An especially promising candidate for curator acquisition is the proposal that first-rate teachers should be encouraged or even forced to ply their trade in bad schools so as to uplift strugglers. This "cure" is a permanent no-brainer item on today's reform menu. For example, Nancy Schwartz, the regional outreach director of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, recently condemned Cincinnati, OH schools for disproportionately assigning skilled teachers to the district's most academically accomplished schools. In her estimation, these highly certified teachers are not being employed "effectively." And what was it about these shunned schools that made them so unattractive to superior teachers? These schools, according to Ms. Schwartz, suffered from poor leadership or a poor professional culture [1]. Send in the A-team to fix the culture, and test scores will climb.    

Unfortunately, this glittering solution fails to survive even the most rudimentary inspection. Experts like Nancy Schwartz totally ignore cost accounting. They blithely assume that dispatching a stellar math instructor to the chaotic Thomas Hobbes High School will yield a net educational advantage versus retaining him at top-notch Einstein H.S. That is, the anticipated uptick in, say, remedial arithmetic at Hobbes will outweigh a possible decline on advanced calculus for the Einstein nerds. Schwartz also glibly assumes that the financial incentives necessary to entice the gifted teachers represent the superior allocation of scarce resources (opportunity costs). Conceivably, but not acknowledged, the bribe money might be better spent on, say, smaller classes or better remedial coursework; and taken as a whole across every school district in America, this shifting of resources yields a net loss. In any case, calculating gains or losses is extremely complicated, and Ms. Schwartz and her minions seem oblivious to the obligation.

There is also the time-consuming, instruction-distracting problem of renegotiating thousands of union contracts regarding pay and assignments, let alone deciding who is a "star" teacher. Perhaps today's ideologically-driven, uplifting-of-the-bottom mentality among professional educators pushes hard-nosed cost accounting off the agenda. Who wants to risk bad news?  

Similarly, this reassignment strategy tacitly assumes that a stellar teacher in one setting will perform wonders everywhere independent of specific talents. Unfortunately, as every experienced teacher learns, what succeeds with one class may fall flat next period with roughly comparable youngsters. It is moreover unlikely that teachers with diligent students can have the same success with those more inclined to socialize. Make students and environment more dissimilar, and unequal outcomes are inevitable. An abrasive teacher who inspires gruff, working-class white kids may terrify introverted Asian children from recently arrived immigrant families.            

If this interchangeability of human talent theory were correct, then the massive, court-ordered racial integration schemes of the last forty years should have long ago narrowed educational gaps. Instead, they have clearly failed. This was the "hostage theory" of racial integration -- transfer underachieving blacks from resource-starved schools with poorly trained teachers so superior white teachers would be "forced" to educate the new arrivals. But in reality, some may refuse to cooperate: Each student takes something different away from the same teacher, the same books, and the same lessons.

Teachers are hardly interchangeable knowledge-imparting machines. This is not to say that a skilled teacher cannot help; some can. But the hypothesis that an accomplished instructor can be effective universally is not a universal pedagogical law, and the evidence from decades of failed racial integration where blacks and whites sat side-by-side suggests caution.

But perhaps the most devastating critique of the send-in-the A-team solution is that the A-team will refuse to go, and for good reason. These "most in need" schools are typically physically dangerous, especially for women, and with talented teachers always in demand, why risk life and limb for a modest "combat pay" bonus? More fundamental, the most alluring reward for good teachers is imparting knowledge, not a dollar more per hour. Not even a hefty raise might entice skilled teachers to spend years battling conscientious objectors in the Great War on Ignorance.

The evidence of this aversion is overwhelming. One Texas study on teacher transfers found that student race and ethnicity frequently dictated job relocation, and these far outshone monetary incentives, especially for female teachers [2]. Specifically, white teachers favored high-achieving white schools (and black teachers less successful "black schools"), and transfers typically occur within the same urban school district, a relocation unrelated to teaching smaller classes and pay incentives since pay schedules tend to be uniform within districts. Offering "combat pay," at least within feasible ranges, failed to entice teachers to engage low-achieving minority students, let alone attract fresh recruits to these troubled schools. At best, an older male teacher might be slightly more tempted, given the lure of greater retirement pay.    

This racial element in discouraging top teachers to relocate to under-performing schools (which are usually black or Hispanic) is the truth that dare not speak its own name. When raised, it is often sanitized. A major study of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, NC school system involving 137,000 students found that high-quality teachers, regardless of race, fled black students [3]. (School demographics had radically altered once court-ordered busing ended and students returned to more neighborhood-centered schools.) Tellingly, this migration from sub-par schools was most pronounced for the best teachers as measured by years of experience, licensing exam scores, and demonstrated impact on student achievement scores.

A Chicago study of 538 elementary schools and 118 public high schools brings even worse news [4]. The researchers found that half the teachers left Chicago's schools within five years of being hired in these largely African-American schools. In high school, this was a jailbreak -- some 76% of the teachers fled after a mere five years, and going beyond the raw numbers shows that the lower the school's academic performance, the larger the exodus. And this is a national pattern, though perhaps most visible in cities like Chicago, where African-Americans dominate the schools.   

These high turnover figures obviously bode poorly for schools, and rest assured that the higher the teacher quality and the lower the student ability, the greater the turnover. The costs of annually hiring countless rookie teachers plus the administrative burden of supervising inexperienced recruits must be enormous. Will this be offset by even a small uptick in test scores? Probably not. Constant staff turnover no doubt also encourages mischief-makers, since teachers counting the days to departure are less inclined to discipline miscreants. Better to turn the other cheek until the contract ends and flee.

If sending the best to the worst becomes official policy and includes coercive measures, educational disaster is inevitable. Skilled teachers will shun school districts with large minority populations lest they get conscripted for troubled, possibly life-threatening schools. This means nearly all big-city school systems are now off-limits. Not even $100,000 paychecks might do the trick, save for those about to retire (quitting mid-career rather than accept an unwelcome transfer means forfeiting seniority, which is no small cost, regardless of current salary). Largely white suburban schools plus private schools will now receive a windfall of talented, motivated teachers, and race/ethnic gaps in academic attainment will soar.

Worse, the very possibility of such forced placement might discourage the most talented from entering the profession. Why serve as cannon fodder for some hare-brained, doomed-to-fail scheme? As an example of the Law of Unintended Consequences, sending the best teachers to the worst school is perfect. And it will certainly be a featured exhibit in the Museum of Bad Education Ideas. 

Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana.

[1] Ben Fischer, "Top teachers assigned unevenly,", December 20, 2009.
[2] Eric Hanushek, John F. Kain, Steven G. Rivkin and Gregory F. Branch, Charter School Quality and Parental Decision Making with School Choice," National Bureau of Economic Research, March 2005.
[3] Debra Viadero, "Teacher Transfers Linked to Influx of Black Students," Education Week, May 27, 2009. Online version.
[4] Azam Ahmed, "High turnover Crippling Chicago Schools, Report Says," Teacher Magazine, June 30, 2009. Online version. 
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