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Lesson 3.4

Teacher Placement:
Who Teaches Where?

Here’s what happens if you pay teachers to work in challenging schools.

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Schools need effective and well-prepared teachers, especially in areas where there are high concentrations of students with high needs.

This lesson explains the messy processes and rules that determine who works where in California schools. It explores the power that teachers have (and lack) to choose where they work, and answers the question why so many teachers never move. This lesson also explains the basics about substitute teaching.

Push and Pull in teacher assignments

Teachers are employed by school districts, not by schools. Every class needs a teacher, and it's a big logistical challenge, even in small schools. Districts can take a mix of two main approaches to determine where their employees work and the classes they teach: push and pull.

  • Push approaches directly assign teachers to schools and classes. Teachers don't love being told where they have to work. Push policies often require collective bargaining agreements that provide the district with sufficient discretion to make assignments.
  • Pull approaches give teachers more control over which school they work in and the classes they are assigned to teach. In this model, some districts use incentives to attract teachers to choose more-challenging assignments. Such incentives include promises about working conditions, recruitment of a strong school leader, arrangements to move teachers as a group, reduced or flexible work assignments, and (sometimes) increased compensation. Pay matters; school districts use pay incentives to attract teachers to apply for open positions.

California laws about school assignments are complex. It can be challenging for a district to change a teacher assignment if the teacher objects.

How do teachers switch schools?

Teachers in California public schools are employed by school districts or by charter schools (LEAs).Within a big district, teachers can negotiate a move from one school to another without changing their employer, usually with the cooperation of the school leaders affected. To move to a school in another district is considerably more complicated, because it involves leaving your job and signing a new contract with a new employer. This means relinquishing your seniority, which can imply a pay cut. This is part of the reason teachers tend to stay put.

What is student mobility?

Funding for education in California is based on school attendance, as Ed100 Chapter 8 will explain.School districts decide how many teachers to employ in each school based on the number of students that they expect will attend. In places where there is high student mobility — that is, where families are more likely to relocate during the school year — this can be a tricky business. California began making historical data available about mobility and stability in 2021. As of October 2023, stabilty data was available only for the 2020-21 school year — a three-year delay.

In general, districts plan the number of teachers at a site based on a ratio of students and teachers. This ratio doesn't generally take teacher experience into account, which can create unintended consequences.

Inexperienced teachers earn lower wages than experienced ones, so a school with many inexperienced teachers has low average staff costs.

Because inexperienced teachers earn lower wages than experienced ones, a school with a large percentage of inexperienced teachers has low staff costs. Conversely, schools with lots of experienced teachers have high true costs. This is not always obvious. Under federal law, districts are obligated to spend money on students equitably across all of their schools. This turns out to be quite difficult an a little mysterious.

The SARC report

In California, the only place to find information about actual staff costs at the school site level is on a report known as the School Accountability Report Card (SARC). It's a dense document full of useful information for those intrepid few who actually find it and read it. Until the passage of the Federal ESSA law at the end of the Obama Administration, there was almost no way to get this information — it was a completely hidden area of inequity in school systems. (This issue is explained in greater depth in Ed100 Lesson 8.7.) Because SARC reports are not systematically collected or compared, there is little accountability for their quality.

How often are teachers absent?

Teachers miss work an average of about 9 days per school year, but the rate varies significantly among districts and data are not easy to find. The treatment of teacher absences can become part of the culture of a district. Teacher absences can involve training days, conferences, sick leave, personal days, and absences for other reasons.

Some teacher contracts unintentionally encourage teacher absences with "use 'em or lose 'em" clauses that blur the use of vacation days and sick leave. The cost of covering for a teacher's absences is a hidden area of compensation. A major study of teacher attendance in 2012 estimated the cost at about $1,800 per teacher per year (about $2,200 in 2022 dollars), again with big variances.

Teacher absences add up. Over the course of a K-12 education, an average student will cumulatively spend about two-thirds of a school year being taught by substitute teachers. The rate varies, though. In general, low-income students experience more teacher absences compared with their high-income peers.

How do people become substitute teachers?

California has a persistent shortage of people who want to work as teachers. The shortage is even more acute for substitute teachers.

It is very easy to qualify to work as a substitute teacher in California. Normally, you must have earned a four-year college degree, but in 2022-23 the shortage was judged so severe that a path was created for aspiring teachers to work in the classroom as paid substitutes. There's some minimal paperwork involved, but a full credential isn’t required.

Most substitute teachers are paid by the day, and the rate can vary wildly from one substitute "gig" to the next. Districts have some practical incentives to re-hire the same substitutes repeatedly, if they can. Districts often try to maintain a pool of candidates so that when a teacher calls in sick there's a clear list of people to call. Substitute teachers don’t have to accept every job offered to them — and they don’t. Schools with a reputation for treating substitute teachers well have a significant advantage over those with a poor reputation.

Prior to the pandemic, pay rates for substitutes tended to be about double the minimum wage. In the pandemic, rates rose sharply, and did not quickly return to pre-pandemic levels. In October 2023 most job listings for substitute teachers on EdJoin offered more than $200 per school day. When no substitute is available, students still need supervision. Lacking better options, administrators frequently find themselves standing in for absent teachers. Teacher can also make do by dispersing otherwise unsupervised students to other classrooms.

Last updated October 2023.


Besides offering pay incentives, what can districts do to attract teachers to work in schools with high poverty and/or many English language learners?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Selisa Loeza October 22, 2021 at 11:18 pm
The more money, fewer rules concept by the LCFF reminds me a lot of MacKenzie Scott's research and approach on donating money to organizations at HBCU's. It seems to have much more impact when schools/organizations aren't taking the time for all the expectations that often come with money and given the liberty and trust to effectively utilize as needed.
user avatar
Jeff Camp October 5, 2018 at 10:43 pm
Teacher placement policies vary by district. NCTQ has assembled a summary of placement policies at the largest districts in the US, including some California districts, to document the policy of "mutual consent." Under this policy, teachers cannot be placed into a school over the objection of the principal.
user avatar
cb65dy89 May 2, 2016 at 5:19 pm
It is crucial that we pay for more experienced teachers who have the training to deal with the challenging environment that some school have -- or have more training for the teachers that we have, and also have either policeman all day or some type of security to handle some of the challenging environment in the schools.
user avatar
ptalisa April 28, 2015 at 5:57 pm
Our district is doing a great job with the control over funds but I wiah they would give back the arts now
user avatar
CM January 19, 2015 at 2:51 pm
Who works where must be decided by needs of a school and the right teacher's desire. Some schools have more challenging environment. A teacher who is skilled and willing to do the job must be given the position. Nobody else should decide.
user avatar
Margaret Gaston March 29, 2011 at 4:53 pm
In addition to the “Push” and “Pull” approaches mentioned, there is a third strategy that has gotten far less attention from the media and the policy community: retain and build. With very few exceptions, each year even in the most challenging environments, the majority of teachers assigned to a school remain there. Of those who stay, neither pushing nor pulling is likely to help them improve their practice, especially in critical subject matter areas such as science.

A 2007 survey of elementary teachers in the San Francisco Bay region conducted by the Lawrence Hall of Science found that 41 percent of respondents felt less prepared to teach science as compared to other subjects, yet more than two-thirds said they had fewer than seven hours of professional development in science education over the last three years. More than a third said they received none at all.

In dynamic environments where students and teachers are more likely to thrive, attention is paid to building subject matter content knowledge and pedagogical skills, developing solutions to tough problems by encouraging collaboration between and among teachers, and using student data and other relevant assessment information to guide instruction and shape professional development. Building capacity of the teacher workforce to meet everyday classroom challenges may not have the drawing power – or the drama – of other currently popular approaches, but it is a strategy that deserves equal play if we want to bring about the increases in students’ learning that Californians would like to see.
©2003-2024 Jeff Camp
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