Contradictory arguments about “teacher equity” and the missing market analysis

Bottom line for this long post: few people take labor markets seriously in education. I mean seriously, not ideologically.1 We need some work in market design for the hiring of new teachers and the issue of teacher skill distributions.

On May 13, Allyson Klein wrote a brief but illuminating Ed Week blog entry about the federal government’s silence on a promise to promote “teacher equity” policies, following up on a February article. Essentially, it looks like the Department of Education first promised its non-profit/advocacy allies that it would Do Something about unequal access to good teachers, and now is having problems figuring out how it can mandate that. (Important note: the statutory language on this is from No Child Left Behind. This is not particularly an Obama administration problem, except it’s just the latest administration wrestling with the issue.) As the Arne Duncan era at USDOE lurches towards its final act, we are likely to witness sotto voce pullbacks on a range of policies where there is not enough time to manage the bureaucratic or political waters. Klein called it “logistical bandwidth,” but it’s as much a matter of political “bandwidth” as logistical. This is life for an agency where political appointees commonly make a broad list of promises. At some point, there either has to be pullback on some items or the unaccomplished list becomes an al-dente test of political and administrative viability.2

I hope that in the case of teacher quality and distribution, this provides an opportunity for some new ideas to emerge before the Next Big Thing in either the Jeb! or Hillary! administration.

Typical education-reform arguments about teacher placement are in deep contradiction on one question: should an individual school or small group of schools pick their own teachers? On the one hand, many argue that “forced placement” of teachers based on seniority is wrong, and school leaders should be able to decide who works at the school. That is fundamental in some of the turnaround plans that require teachers to reapply for their jobs at schools with low test scores and in the politics of the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) in New York City and similar displaced-teacher pools in other districts. Yet at the same time, many advocates of education reform that they see based on civil rights (e.g., Democrats for Education Reform and Ed Trust) also argue that states must equalize access to great teachers. For example in 2010, Education Trust testimony argued that states and districts should be required to create quotas for equalizing teacher quality across schools and groups of students and consequences for states and districts that do not meet those quotas. A similar position is in a 2011 statement by Ed Trust, DFER, and related policy allies; as well as in an April 4 letter to Congressional committee leaders from Ed Trust regarding short-term federal funding priorities.

How do you meet those quotas? In the history of education, you generally get there by eliminating local decision-making and forcing placement of teachers on schools. That is what happened in the era of teacher desegregation.3 Or you try for some sort of incentive pay that has been used for a few years at a time in a broad variety of places. The first idea contradicts the “principals should pick their teachers” priority of many reformers and would run up against the same interdistrict firewall that ended the chance of effective integration in Northern states. The second has always been short-term, with little solid evidence that I have seen of great effectiveness.

This isn’t to say that the contradictory impulses are new or surprising; welcome to the world of education policy. As an historian who studies schools as (weird) institutions, my instinct is to understand why those previous attempts have ended the way that they did. What do they tell us about the nature of hiring teachers? Teacher hiring is not geographically bound in precisely the same way that student attendance is, as teachers generally have enough resources to commute–for example, many districts in tony Westchester County (suburban New York) have frequently had a majority of teachers who traveled from far away, such as from Rockland County where the cost of living is much lower. So the continued differences in who is hired and stays in particular places should give us pause about our understanding of schools and school systems, and especially the abstract notion of a teacher market and “human capital strategies.” Some issues:

  • Resources are geographically bound. This is the obvious connection between student poverty and teacher hiring/retention patterns. Resources include operating revenues for salaries, the social capital of a community, and the less tangible capacity of individual schools and school districts to support teachers. Only one of these is addressed by states with operating-fund equalization policies.
  • In most cases, the labor market for teachers is highly fragmented. Keep in mind that the practical market size for teachers is a reasonable commute–a highly fuzzy concept, but let’s assume it’s “within 25 miles of home” (something that also has been similar for the past half-century). In some cases, that labor market is unitary in the sense of one significant employer (a large school district) and lots of openings in a big field that you can identify and apply for (elementary education). But that’s rare. Typically, teachers must navigate a complicated labor market with multiple employers, a hard route just to find job openings, and an even harder time figuring out the viability of different jobs. Experienced teachers have personal networks that help; sometimes others help with the matching (some colleges of education, alt-cert organizations, state job-listing websites, etc.). All is imperfect.
  • Despite that fragmentation and uncertainty, the common understanding among new teachers is that they want a place where they can teach for many years. There is something important about job stability for teachers, probably because “market” has a cultural meaning as well as an economic meaning. In these latter days of neoliberalism, we tend to forget the historical meaning of a market: a gathering place as much as a location for exchange. The notion of a teaching community may be fictive and limited (ask a teacher in a high-turnover school what community exists there), but it has powerful appeals to teachers. The currently-voiced theory of action on merit pay has nothing to do with direct effects (since the research doesn’t support that claim) and now talks about attracting a “new type” of teacher who wants to be paid based on performance. I have yet to see evidence that will attract many teachers.4 On the other hand, if a second-year teacher tells interviewees, “I’ve felt wonderfully supported, and let me tell you the ways I’ve grown,” you have a powerful recruiting tool.
  • That preference for staying in one school for several years provides unequal opportunities for new teachers, as well as for students. If you happen to land in a school with great support for new teachers, you have a good chance of staying in the field for a reasonable stretch we may call a career. On the other hand, if your first job teaching is in a horrible location, with a tyrant or incompetent as principal, you may assume there is no option other than leaving the field.

In other words, the labor market for teachers will produce unequal outcomes because of its current dynamics, and the proposed solutions do nothing to interrupt the features described above. So what if performance pay attracts a “new kind” of teacher, if those new teachers assume a lousy first school means all of their potential jobs will be lousy? So what if a state has a numerical quota to reduce unequal distribution of teachers labeled… well, whatever you want to label them in terms of effectiveness? Interdistrict barriers in most states make it difficult to do much more than weep about those inequalities. And the fragmentation of urban schools into various sectors (whether large groups of private schools or charter schools) exacerbates these dynamics.

I would like to see people interested in education policy take the idea of designing a labor market for teachers seriously. I mean a living, highly flawed market–let’s use the 25-mile circle around Faneuil Hall in Boston as an example5–and see if there is a way to design a market under real-world constraints, change the defaults in current ways of hiring new teachers, and otherwise be much more creative in crafting policy options than mandating a certain system of evaluating teachers and then mandating distributions in district-firewalled suburbs.

Some ideas I’d like to see sketched out more completely than what I can in my head:

  • Regional matching systems for specialist positions.6 Use part of federal funding to support interdistrict collaborations in matching schools to qualified new teachers in certain fields (such as special education or physics, to pick two that are more likely to be hard-to-staff and compare candidates easily). This would function something like medical residency matches (which have already undergone extensive market design) and be more likely to attract district participants who can relieve their time spent on these searches to focus on what they would rather spend time on (and is more easily within their capacity). Some variations:
    • A matching system, plus a support and formative-evaluation system that specializes in help for teachers in a specific category who otherwise would be isolated in a school as a specialist. And provides some evaluation services independent of the skills of an individual school/district.
    • A matching system, plus a system of rotating teachers in the matching pool. The idea here is to equalize opportunities for new teachers and (at least in theory) provide teachers with a hard first school the knowledge that they get another bite at the apple the next year.
    • Instead of a matching system, an auction system, with proportionately greater power for needy schools. (Note: this isn’t like bidding for salaries: A teacher entering the regional pool would need to be guaranteed the same starting salary, regardless of location.)
  • A regional auction system for experienced teachers.
    • I have absolutely no idea how this might work, except that (1) more advantaged districts/schools would need to hand over hard cash to less-advantaged districts/schools interested in experienced teachers; and (2) information about evaluations would have to be shared within the pool. The system also would need to be set up so that principals do not have an incentive to game this by lowballing evaluations. (As I said, this requires some shrewd creativity, not the usual sausage-making of education policy.)
    • An alternative to a full-out auction system would be an experienced-teacher exchange system.
  • Teacher-team hiring. Instead of hiring individuals, construct a system that would allow schools to hire small teams of teachers. There are all sorts of difficulties with the employment-law angle here; the upside is that effective self-selected teams might be able to change the dynamics of both the schools they move to and also the notion of how we construct a school staff.

The point here is not that any of the ideas above would necessarily work, but that the current ideology of “the educational market” is paper-thin, and a more serious exploration could address issues that are currently deep with contradictions.


  1. There is some very decent microeconomic work, but it is sparser than what you might think and misses some of the key market mechanisms discussed in this entry. []
  2. I.e., “you throw everything at a wall and see what sticks.” []
  3. You probably thought court- and HEW-supervised desegregation was all about integrating students, and if so you need to read my colleague Barbara Shircliffe’s Desegregating Teachers (2012). []
  4. Culture eats fantasy rationales for merit pay for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and tiramisu. []
  5. On this map, that circle includes Boston and the suburbs to roughly I-95 west of Boston plus a few miles, more or less. []
  6. Note: I’ve made proposals like this before. []