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Study: Students Suffer When Teachers Are Hired After the School Year Starts

Teachers who are hired when the school year's in full swing are not as effective as those hired before classes begin, according to a new study. And it's the students in low-income urban districts who are paying the price.

Assistant professors of education and economics at Brown University, John P. Papay and Matthew A. Kraft, share their findings in a paper titled "The Productivity Costs of Inefficient Hiring Practices: Evidence from Late Teacher Hiring," published in the Fall 2016 issue of Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. The conclusions of the study probably won't come as a surprise, especially in light of previous research, cited in this article, showing that nationwide the rate of newly-hired teachers coming on board when the school year is already underway is as high as 30 percent.

Low-income urban districts are bearing the brunt of the latecomers, hiring about twice as many teachers after the start of the school year as suburban districts. The upshot, the authors of this study say, is that students most in need of a qualified teacher at the start of the school year are the least likely to have one. 

Who's Hired Late?

The study took as a representative sample a large urban school district in the South, which staffs about 9,000 teachers and serves more than 130,000 students: 43 percent African American, 38 percent white, 10 percent Hispanic, 10 percent with limited English proficiency, and 10 percent with learning disabilities. The authors examined records from the 1999-2000 through the 2009-2010 school years of when teachers were hired and when they left, alongside the decade's 4th through 8th grade test scores in reading and math.

The authors found that, each year, the district hired somewhere between 100 and 200 teachers after the first day of school, and more than half of these weren't hired until October. The late-hires showed marked differences from their district peers: They were more apt to be male and African American; they were older, by 3.6 years; and they were more likely, by 11 percentage points, to have entered the profession by an alternative-preparation route. They were also less likely to have a master's degree or even previous teaching experience.

The schools where these late-hired teachers worked were markedly similar: lower-performing, serving greater populations of African Americans, and demonstrating higher absenteeism. Meanwhile, schools serving the most advantaged students tended to hire teachers well before the start of school, probably because their budgets generally aren't as dependent on slow-moving state funds, according to a report cited in the study.

How Is Student Achievement Affected?

The authors found that students taught by late-hired teachers suffered learning setbacks, as evidenced by test scores. Students with late-hired teachers underperformed their peers with new teachers hired over the summer, by .026 standard deviations in reading and .042 standard deviations in math. The authors likened this to students losing about two months of instruction.

Late-hired math teachers in particular were a problem. Unlike their peers in English language arts who after their first year performed no differently from on-time hired teachers, these math teachers continued to underperform even after their first year on the job. They weren't equipped to overcome the challenges of starting late, such as unfamiliarity with the curriculum, or establishing a classroom culture after students have already formed their habits. The relatively low quality of the district's late-hired math teachers might be a consequence, the authors figure, of a dearth of qualified applicants.

Late-hired teachers are also much more likely than teachers hired on time to leave the school and the district. Whereas 80 percent of on-time hired teachers stick around in the district for a second year, just 71 percent of late hires stay. Five percent of on-time hired teachers change schools after their first year, compared with 7 percent of late hired teachers.

Tackling the Problem

Principals don't always have control over the hiring timeline, often waiting for budget approvals before they can fill vacant teacher slots. Urban districts that rely on greater levels of state funding and a more complex political process usually don't see budgets approved until late in the school year, according to a report cited in the study. By that time, suburban districts have already picked through the pool of qualified teachers.

The study's authors conclude that simply hiring teachers earlier would solve the problem. But school leaders would have to push for earlier budget approval, and that would require changes in the way districts work, from policy to administration.

So what should schools do now? Even hiring more qualified candidates wouldn't eliminate the effects of late hiring, the authors say. Instead, schools and districts have to make an effort to smooth the transition of late-hired teachers into the classroom, by providing the support they need to learn the curriculum, and to establish a classroom culture with students whose education has been disrupted by the absence of a fulltime, dedicated teacher. These strategies won't solve all the challenges that arise from hiring teachers late in the school year, the researchers said. But they may go a long way toward limiting the negative effects of late hiring, until an earlier timeline for hiring teachers can be put in place.

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