Addressing the Teacher Qualification Gap

Exploring the Use and Efficacy of Incentives to Reward Teachers for Tough Assignments

Dan Goldhaber explores the use and efficacy of incentives to reward teachers for touch assignments.

 (AP/Jacqueline Larma)
(AP/Jacqueline Larma)

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Teachers are, by most any measure, inequitably distributed among students. Poor students are far more likely than their wealthier counterparts to be matched with teachers who have little experience, graduated from less-selective colleges, and possess fewer credentials. It is not surprising that inequities exist in the distribution of teachers across the nation’s classrooms. A well-developed body of literature in labor economics shows that there is generally a relationship between wages and the nonpecuniary working conditions of a job, such as risk. Jobs that have less desirable attributes usually pay a “compensating differential”—an additional increment of income or wage—to motivate individuals to accept the position over a job that offers more favorable nonpecuniary working conditions.

Yet most school systems utilize a single-salary-schedule pay structure that determines a teacher’s salary by his or her degree and experience alone without considering, for instance, the desirability of the teaching position. The teacher labor market therefore adjusts based on the job attributes of a school assignment through teacher sorting across schools, rather than through salary differentials that depend on the job attributes of a school assignment. Schools serving poorer students get less-qualified teachers, and it is quite likely that these teachers are also less effective. The maldistribution of teachers, moreover, tends to create inequities in student funding.

States have employed various strategies to address the maldistribution of teachers, such as financial inducements, including salary supplements or loan forgiveness for teachers willing to work in high-poverty schools; changes to working conditions in high-poverty schools; and targeted teacher-pipeline policies. Yet we know relatively little about the efficacy of many of these strategies. Addressing teacher inequities is difficult because much of the inequity in teacher distribution overall is due to inequities within local school districts. Some of the policy options, such as financial incentives, might therefore lead to a re-allocation of teachers within a district, a prospect that may not be very politically palatable to the communities that stand to lose effective teachers.

This report builds on what we do know and combines it with labor-economic theory and an assessment of the politics associated with teacher-equity reforms to make four recommendations designed to help address teacher equity. The first two recommendations relate to data and provide the tools necessary to make the case for reform and evaluate whether reforms have had their intended effects:

1. Create and maintain state data systems that allow analyses of teacher distribution and the efficacy of policies designed to address that distribution. This will require, at minimum, the ability to match teachers with schools, students, and the characteristics of those schools and students over time.

2. Implement new teacher policies simultaneously with a plan to study their effects, with the understanding that such studies are unlikely to be completed for several years.

The next proposal is designed to bring transparency to the budgeting process, so that the public can perceive any inequities in school spending that result from teacher qualification disparities:

3. Require school districts to report spending at each school on a real-dollar basis.

The final recommendation is based on some of the research on using a direct pipeline strategy to recruit effective new teachers into the field and improve teacher equity. A direct pipeline strategy is useful in avoiding a controversial redistribution of teachers within a school district:

4. Develop and tap into new high-quality sources of teachers that are specifically targeted toward schools serving disadvantaged students.

While all these policies are promising, they are certainly not the only options for reform. The key is to try to address the problem and to learn about the efficacy of the reform efforts, for when it comes to crafting policies to change the distribution of teachers, it is clear that we don’t yet know much about those policies’ effectiveness.

The political will to address teacher inequities has so far failed to match the strength of the rhetoric often decrying the problem. But new federal and state policy initiatives suggest that political will and rhetoric are beginning to align. The key will be to ensure that investments are productive by pairing new teacher-equity policies with efforts to assess their success.

This paper explores the policy options that might be used to address the distribution of teachers across students. The first section discusses findings on teacher preferences, the dynamics of the teacher labor market, and whether we should care about the resulting distribution of teachers across students. The next section focuses on the magnitude of teacher inequity, followed by an exploration of how inequities develop and a discussion of what we know about the various policy options designed to address teacher inequities. Based on this information, the final section focuses on the politics of reform and makes policy recommendations for addressing the teacher qualification gap.

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