Opportunity & Access

The Surprising Reason Urban Schools Attract Less Qualified Teachers

New research shows that teachers seeking their first jobs overwhelmingly choose school districts near to where they grew up.

June 01, 2005

| by Alice LaPlante

Urban schools and those with lower-performing students tend to employ the least qualified teachers. But contrary to popular belief, this might not just be due to the fact that teachers prefer working with higher-performing kids.

New research shows that teachers seeking their first jobs overwhelmingly choose to teach in school districts near to where they grew up. Thus the fact that certain schools or areas aren’t producing a lot of college graduates — and that the college graduates they’re producing aren’t as skilled as the college graduates in other places — is leading to a “cycle of poverty” in education. “It’s not just the specific preferences of teachers for certain kinds of kids, but the fact that history plays a role in the labor market that is causing this,” said Susanna Loeb, associate professor in the Stanford School of Education.

Loeb, who teaches a class on economic approaches to educational policy analysis for the Graduate School of Business, analyzed the choices first-year teachers made for employment in New York state. Among other results, she and her colleagues found that the labor market for teachers is quite local. A full 61 percent of teachers first teach in schools located within 15 miles of their hometown; 85 percent get their first teaching job within 40 miles of their hometown. And 34 percent of new teachers took their first job in the same school district in which they attended high school.

This is true for urban schools as well as suburban schools. Eighty-eight percent of teachers who grew up in an urban district first teach in a city school near to where they grew up. But this doesn’t produce nearly enough teachers to fill the jobs needed in urban schools — only 60 percent of city teaching jobs are filled by locals. This means that 40 percent of urban teachers need to come from elsewhere — and Loeb’s research also found that teachers who come from the suburbs are 10 times as likely to transfer out of urban schools after their first year than teachers who grew up in the city.

“Because urban areas don’t produce that many teachers, they have to bring in teachers from other places — and those teachers tend not to stay,” said Loeb.

How attached are first-time teachers to their hometowns? Very. Not only do teachers wish to teach close to home, they wish to teach in districts similar to the ones they graduated from. Teachers raised in a suburban environment are willing to travel 26 miles further to teach near to where they grew up rather than another suburban region. And first-time teachers from suburbia are willing to travel 37 miles rather than teach in an urban school.

There are a number of implications resulting from this study. First and foremost, said Loeb, it’s important to broaden the pool of teachers in areas that have traditionally not produced many college graduates. “Ideally, we would get more local people interested in teaching,” she said. Already, some states have established “alternate route” programs that take individuals from other professions and put them through a minimal amount of training that qualifies them to teach. Such people eventually get a teaching credential, but they don’t have to get fully certified before they begin teaching “The good news is, there are a lot of people willing to do this. We don’t know whether they’re doing a particularly good job as teachers, but these programs have been successful in increasing the pool of people interested,” said Loeb.

There are other possibilities as well: creating scholarships for young people from urban areas who are interested in teaching and — in a more long-term strategy — improving the educational achievements of children in the community by encouraging them to finish high school, go to college, and return to their roots as teachers.

“There is also a good deal to be said as well for traditional policies aimed at making these schools nicer places to teach in, where teachers would want to go,” said Loeb. “Anything that helps improve the quality of teaching jobs in the schools that have traditionally been difficult to staff is a step in the right direction.” Now is a time of change in the teacher labor market, with large numbers of teachers preparing to retire. “So it’s an interesting time to take a look at whether there are things we can do,” said Loeb.

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