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Research Spotlight on Hard-to-Staff Schools

NEA Reviews of the Research on Best Practices in Education

Found In: teaching strategies

What characterizes “hard-to-staff” schools, those schools that have difficulty in finding and retaining qualified, effective teachers? Many are high-poverty inner-city schools or rural schools that, as a consequence of their location in economically depressed or isolated districts, offer lower salaries. Their districts also lack the amenities with which other districts attract teachers.

Such schools have high turnover rates and a high percentage of relatively new teachers because more experienced teachers, whose seniority gives them greater choice, tend to go elsewhere (Education Commission of the States, 2007). Consequently, these schools have great difficulty maintaining stability and developing a strong organizational culture that supports learning.

Elizabeth Glennie, Charles R. Coble, & Michael Allen say (Education Commission of the States, 2004):

Hard-to-staff schools differ from their peers in several respects. They tend to have higher percentages of students who are performing below grade level on end-of-grade tests. They have higher percentages of students who are eligible for free lunch and who are ethnic minorities. A large majority of hard-to-staff schools are middle schools, and many are located in urban areas. Asked their opinions about working conditions in their schools, teachers in both nondesignated and hard-to-staff schools are most satisfied with "Leadership" and least satisfied with "Time Management." Although their views are similar to their peers in perceptions of Time Management, hard-to-staff school teachers, however, are less satisfied with "Facilities," "Leadership," "Personal Empowerment" and "Opportunities for Professional Development."

Disparities in the Background of Teachers

Richard Ingersoll found significant disparities in the backgrounds of teachers at high-poverty vs. low-poverty secondary schools in the United States (cited in Education Commission of the States, 2007). For example, at low-poverty schools, 27 percent of mathematics teachers and 51 percent of physical science teachers lack a major or minor in their teaching field; those numbers rise to 43 percent and 65 percent, respectively, in high-poverty schools. "Within specific states, both urban and rural, students in high-poverty schools may be as much as four times more likely to have teachers without a major in their teaching field than students at wealthier schools." Poor and minority students are often served by teachers who do not have adequate subject-matter preparation for the courses they teach.

Students Who Go On to College

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2004), 86 percent of the students in low-poverty schools who graduate in the top quarter of their high school class go on to four-year colleges. This compares to 58 percent of the top graduates at high-poverty schools. As for college completion (Education Trust, 2007), 48 percent of young people from high-income families graduate college by age 24, compared to only 7 percent of young people from low-income families.

Plans to Ensure Quality Teachers for Poor & Minority Children

The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2001 requires state departments of education to submit a plan that includes the steps it will take to ensure poor and minority children are not taught at higher rates by inexperienced, uncertified, or out-of-field teachers than are other children.

Recruiting Quality Teachers

The difficulties in recruiting quality teachers to chronically hard-to-staff schools must be addressed to ensure academic success for all students. Southeast Center for Teaching Quality (2004) says:

High quality teachers can be selective in choosing where they want to teach. Cumbersome, delayed hiring practices; lower salaries; negative labels for low-performing schools and undesirable geographic regions often deter both new teachers and veteran teachers from working at hard-to-staff schools. North Carolina is no exception to this national trend. The state has the highest number of National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) in the country, but a recent analysis shows that half of North Carolina's NBCTs serve in the 20 percent of schools with the smallest percentage of disadvantaged students, while more than one-quarter of schools serving poor and minority students have no NBCTs. The students who need accomplished teachers the most are simply not getting them. There are no silver bullets for recruiting quality teachers. The experiences in many states demonstrate that salary supplements and other financial incentives are a necessary piece of the puzzle, but monetary rewards alone are not sufficient. A broad array of incentives and supports – financial and non-financial – are necessary to attract high quality teachers to hard-to-staff schools. Most of these incentives are being implemented somewhere across the nation, but complete and comprehensive incentive packages are rare.

Additionally, Eileen Horng (UCLA, 2005) contends that the quality of teachers' working conditions is a major factor in recruiting and retaining teachers to work at hard-to-staff schools. According to Hong, education leaders and policymakers should collect data that reveal the quality of working conditions and improve those conditions that are disincentives for qualified teachers (for example, unclean or unsafe facilities, poor administrative support, large class sizes, insufficient resources for students, and school policies made without teacher participation discourage qualified teachers from working at some schools).

Barnett Berry and Eric Hirsch (National Governors Association, 2005) state that teachers, particularly in hard-to-staff schools, report feeling isolated in their classrooms, needing basic materials to do their jobs, and feeling inundated with work. Teachers feel that they have no input in the design and organization of schools and that they have minimal prospects for career advancement and professional growth.

Clearly, the task of recruiting and retaining teachers in hard-to-staff schools is a challenging one. But, not having adequately trained, effective teachers results in profoundly negative consequences for students. If the nation is to guarantee all children an adequate education and solid career opportunities, there must be a qualified, effective teacher in every classroom.



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