One More Way Low-Income Kids Suffer in School: Tardy Teacher Hires

A new study shows that teachers who start after the beginning of the school year are less effective than those hired on time.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Sep 30, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Sean Eckhardt is TakePart's editorial fellow.

Excitement over a new backpack and fresh pencils goes hand in hand with the first day of school—as does anxiety over whether your teachers will be easygoing or super strict. But what if you walked into the classroom after the first bell rang only to be greeted by a substitute, and you had no idea who your teacher for the rest of the year would be?

This is the reality for many students across the country, particularly if they attend school in low-income urban districts. Now a new study from Brown University shows that teachers who start after the beginning of the school year are consistently less effective than those hired on time, making it tougher for kids who are behind academically to catch up.

“We find strong evidence that being assigned to a classroom with a teacher hired late reduces students’ achievement, and the impact of late hiring is felt disproportionately in low-performing schools, potentially exacerbating existing inequities in these schools,” wrote the authors of The Productivity Costs of Inefficient Hiring Practices: Evidence From Late Teacher Hiring.

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For the study, published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, the researchers analyzed a comprehensive data set from an unidentified “large, urban school district in the Southern United States that included student, teacher, and test records from the 1999–2000 school year to the 2009–2010 school year.” The data sample includes 4,000 teachers and 300,000 students in the district. Forty-three percent of these students were African American, 38 percent were white, and 10 percent were Hispanic, according to the study. The researchers also used data from a 2012 study that found 20 percent of teachers in large, urban districts are hired after the school year has begun.

Why do districts hire teachers so late that some aren’t starting until October? Some of the reasons are inefficient hiring practices, unpredictable enrollment numbers, and difficulties in recruitment associated with high teacher-turnover rates in many low-income districts, according to Matthew Kraft, a professor of education and economics at Brown and a researcher on the study.

“This is a function of a lot of different factors, some of which have to do with the capacity of the principal to navigate the hiring process with the district, to successfully recruit candidates and process them efficiently,” Kraft said in an interview with TakePart. “Some of it has to do with the higher turnover rates that we observed in schools that serve students who are from low-income families.”

Compared with on-time hires, late hires adversely affect student test scores—largely because of a lack of continuity in instruction, according to the study. Untrained, long-term subs or large classes that combine several rooms of students make it a challenge to establish a positive classroom environment and develop relationships with students. Furthermore, teachers who are looking for work after the school year has started often are not the most effective teachers to begin with, according to Kraft.

School districts that serve low-income kids of color face problems with teacher retention rates.

Teacher tenure and union contracts sometimes mean the teachers with the most seniority get first pick for open positions, leaving more challenging positions in the inner city to inexperienced educators. Teachers are also leaving the profession at a rate of half a million per year, exacerbating the problem. As a result, administrators in schools serving low-income kids might have trouble finding teachers to fill open positions.

The study found that late hires are also more likely to leave at the end of the school year, perpetuating the cycle of teacher vacancies and late starts, according to Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania whose research focuses on school management and the supply, demand, shortages, and turnover of teachers.

“You could make the hiring process more efficient, but if we backed up and took a larger picture, if you could improve retention, that would eliminate a great deal of the need for the hiring to begin with,” Ingersoll said in an interview with TakePart.

Making changes in bureaucracies and union contracts is a slow-moving process. There are, however, some actions that administrators can take immediately. Kraft cited such examples as establishing school-wide classroom norms to improve continuity in instruction when a change in faculty occurs, supporting teachers with mentoring sessions, and helping new teachers connect with parents to ensure a smooth transition.

“The new hires get the toughest jobs,” Ingersoll said. “Imagine in a law firm giving the toughest cases to a new lawyer that’s just been hired. It’s bad management, but that’s pretty normative.”

Ultimately, the teacher retention problem must be addressed to fix the late-hire problem, according to Ingersoll.

“You have a revolving door in these places, so you spend a whole lot of time trying to recruit and fill positions, and as the study points out, that’s not optimal for anyone,” he said.