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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.

However, these schools often have some of the toughest working conditions in the education system. Some teachers relish a challenge, at least for a while. But many others prefer to move to a school where there are fewer disruptions and more support.

Push and Pull in teacher assignment

There are at least two basic approaches to influence where teachers work: push and pull.

  • Push approaches directly assign teachers to schools. Teachers don't love being told where they have to work, and push policies often require working with teachers unions to ensure that collective bargaining agreements clearly provide the district with sufficient discretion to make assignments.
  • Pull approaches use incentives to attract teachers to choose less-attractive 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.

How do teachers switch schools?

Teachers are employed by school districts, not by their school. Within a big district, teachers can negotiate a move from one school to another without changing their employer. To move to a school in another district is more complicated, because it involves signing a new contract. It also usually means relinquishing your seniority, which implies a pay cut. This is part of the reason teachers tend to stay put.

The challenge of student mobility

School districts typically decide how many teachers to employ in each school based on the number of students enrolled. 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.

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.

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 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.)

Funding for more teachers in areas of greater needs

In 2013, California adopted the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) a school finance system that directs more money toward school districts where students are learning English, living in lower-income families, or in foster care. Districts were instructed to use the incremental funds for the specific benefit of the high-need students, but were given considerable leeway to decide how best to deploy the money. More money, fewer rules.

An important 2018 study of the impact of the policy, titled Money and Freedom, judged the policy a major success.

"The findings suggest that both revenue and flexibility can be productive in enhancing the academic achievement and educational attainment of disadvantaged students. These findings are particularly noteworthy in light of the fact that LCFF is a recent reform and has been gradually rolled out."

The study did not monitor in detail how districts spent the money, but much of it seems to have been directed toward staffing, services and training. The results were unexpectedly quick. For example, the researchers found "among Hispanic children, that a $1,000 increase in per-pupil spending during ages 13-16 leads to an increase of 0.19 standard deviations in math, and 0.11 standard deviations in reading. No statistically significant effects are detectable for white children."

How often are teachers absent?

Teachers miss work an average of about 9 days per school year, but this rate varies significantly among districts. 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. 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?

Substitute teachers in California must hold a four-year college degree and complete some paperwork, but a full credential isn’t required. In 2022, the requirements were temporarily loosened even further, in response to a huge shortage.

Districts have some practical incentives to re-hire the same substitutes repeatedly, so they often maintain a pool of candidates. Some substitute teaching gigs can be pretty tough, and the pay isn’t swanky, either. Substitutes are generally paid by the day. Rates vary from place to place, but typically aren’t more than about double the minimum wage. Depending on the terms of their employment with a district, substitute teachers don’t have to accept every job offered to them — and they don’t. Especially in the pandemic, many substitutes stayed home.

The impact of an absent teacher isn’t always limited to the students whose teacher is absent. When no substitute is available, students still need supervision. Often, students will jam into another teacher’s class, disrupting whatever was planned there.

Updated September 2018
October 2021
September 2022


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.
©2003-2023 Jeff Camp
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