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Teachers Shouldn't Be Moved Between Schools Like Widgets

This is the first of a five-part conversation on equitable teacher distribution.

Ariel Sacks

I'm glad the U.S. Department of Education is taking on the issue of ensuring high quality teachers across both high and low poverty schools. I fear, though, that the very concept of equitably "redistributing effective teachers" carries with it an oversimplification of what effective teaching is, which could easily lead to the failure of such an initiative.  

The notion that effective teachers are effective on their own, and would therefore be effective anywhere they teach, is a myth. I know from experience. I have usually been seen as an effective teacher in the various NYC public schools in which I've taught middle school English. But let's look at some of the factors that have contributed to my success in the classroom:

  • School leadership responsive to teachers' needs and supportive of teachers' ideas
  • Excellent co-teachers in inclusion classes
  • Knowledge of my student populationtheir strengths, interests, needs and the communities and cultures from which they come
  • Time to plan with my co-teachers and collaborate with my teaching teams
  • Access to resources needed for instruction
  • Autonomy to develop curriculum responsive to the needs of my students

I have mostly been fortunate (and persistent enough) to work in schools where I have all of these things in my favor. However, I have also endured periods over my 11 years of teaching during which I—and my studentshave not benefitted from the above conditions. 

Thus, the very factors that help me be most effective also have the power to diminish the quality of the learning experiences I can offer my students. I'm the same teacher with the same skill set and drivebut my impact in those situations is not the same. (These factors have also been primary influences on my decisions over the years to stay in a school or leave.)

It's dangerous to assume that an excellent teacher in one context will necessarily be excellent in another setting, especially when the move is from a healthy teaching and learning environment to a less stable one. We have to view effective teaching as an interaction between the teacher (with all of the knowledge, experience and personality he or she brings), the particular students and their realities in and beyond school, and the conditions within the school that support or undermine the teacher's work. 

Instead of focusing on moving excellent teachers out of teaching contexts that currently support their effectiveness, I believe it would be wiser to focus on improving the working conditions for teachers in high poverty schools and tackle the pervasive teacher retention issues there. As Susan Moore Johnson, Matthew Craft, and Seymour Papay conclude in this 2012 Teacher's College study:

The high turnover rates of teachers in schools with substantial populations of low-income and minority students are driven largely by teachers fleeing the dysfunctional and unsupportive work environments in the schools to which low-income and minority students are most likely to be assigned. If public education is to provide effective teachers for all students, then the schools those students attend must become places that support effective teaching and learning across all classrooms.

In short: give teachers in low-income schools what they need to both increase their effectiveness and prevent them from leaving. 

That brings me to one last point. While I believe positive working conditions for teachers in high-need schools would make the greatest impact on teacher effectiveness and retention, financial incentives play a role as well. Currently, there is a significant financial incentive for teachers to move out of NYC public schools into suburban school districtspay increases for experienced teachers can be as high as 40% in some districts. This financial incentive is compounded by the smaller class sizes, greater access to resources, less pressure to raise test scores by arbitrary amounts, and greater stability within the school and in students' home lives.

A two-pronged approach of (1) improving working conditions for teachers in high need schools and (2) providing financial incentives competitive with suburban districts for effective teachers to stay in the schools they at one point chose for themselves would create a sound pathway toward quality teaching for all students.

Ariel Sacks (@arielsacks) teaches eighth and ninth grade English Language Arts in New York City. She is the author of Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach (Jossey-Bass, 2013). A member of the CTQ Collaboratory, she writes the blog On the Shoulders of Giants.

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