The Challenges of Staffing Urban Schools with Effective Teachers

April 2007
Brian Jacob

Brian Jacob examines challenges faced by urban districts in staffing their schools with effective teachers. He emphasizes that the problem is far from uniform. Teacher shortages are greater in certain subjects, such as math and science or bilingual and special education, and certain grades than others, and differ dramatically from one school to another. The Chicago public schools, for example, regularly receive roughly twenty applicants for each teaching position. But many applicants are interested specific schools, and district officials must struggle to find good candidates for highly impoverished or dysfunctional schools. Jacob shows that urban districts’ difficulty in attracting and hiring teachers means that urban teachers are less highly qualified than their suburban counterparts with respect to characteristics such as experience, educational background, and teaching certification. But they may not thus be less effective teachers—that is, less able to promote student learning. Brian cites recent studies that have found that although certain teachers overall clearly stand out as raising student performance, many teacher characteristics bear surprisingly little relationship with student outcomes. Policies to enhance teacher quality must thus be evaluated in terms of their effect on student achievement, not in terms of conventional teacher characteristics.

Jacob then discusses a series of supply and demand factors that contribute to urban teacher shortages. The most commonly discussed reasons for shortages focus on supply—the number of teachers willing to work in an urban district at given salary levels at any given time—and involve wages, working conditions, and geographic proximity between teacher candidates and schools. Urban districts have experimented with various strategies to increase the supply of teacher candidates (including salary increases and targeted bonuses) and to improve retention rates (including mentoring programs). But the paucity of rigorous research on such strategies means that there is little evidence on their effectiveness.

The author is grateful for excellent research assistance provided by J. D. LaRock and for many helpful suggestions from Robin Jacob, Susanna Loeb, Jonah Rockoff, Cecilia Rouse, and other participants at the Future of Children conference.


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