Speaking of Salaries

What It Will Take to Get Qualified, Effective Teachers in All Communities

Frank Adamson and Linda Darling-Hammond examine the role of salaries in hiring and retaining effective teachers.

Teacher Calvin Hobbs works with students at Timbuktu Academy of Science and Technology in Detroit. (AP Photo)
Teacher Calvin Hobbs works with students at Timbuktu Academy of Science and Technology in Detroit. (AP Photo)

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The fact that well-qualified teachers are inequitably distributed to students in the United States has received growing public attention. By every measure of qualifications—certification, subject matter background, pedagogical training, selectivity of college attended, test scores, or experience—less-qualified teachers tend to be found in schools serving greater numbers of low-income and minority students. Studies in state after state have found that students of color in low- income schools are 3 to 10 times more likely to have unqualified teachers than students in predominantly white schools.

Indeed, because of public attention to these disparities, Congress included a provision in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 that states should ensure all students have access to “highly qualified teachers,” defined as teachers with full certification and demonstrated competence in the subject matter field(s) they teach. This provision was historic, especially since the students targeted by this federal legislation—those who are low-income, low-achieving, new English language learners, or identified with special education needs—are least likely to be served by experienced and well-prepared teachers.

As Education Trust President Kati Haycock has noted, the usual statistics about teacher credentials, as shocking as they are, actually understate the degree of the problem in the most impacted schools:

The fact that only 25% of the teachers in a school are uncertified doesn’t mean that the other 75% are fine. More often, they are either brand new, assigned to teach out of field, or low-performers on the licensure exam … there are, in other words, significant numbers of schools that are essentially dumping grounds for unqualified teachers – just as they are dumping grounds for the children they serve.

The problem of inequitably distributed teachers has continued to be a widespread major concern despite the intentions expressed in NCLB as well as noteworthy progress in some states. Disparity in the access of rich and poor children to well-qualified teachers is one of the constant issues surfaced in the more than 40 state school finance suits that are currently active across the country.

Efforts to address the issue—ranging from training subsidies and bonus pay to alternative pathways into teaching—have been only erratically helpful. In January 2011 a coalition of more than 70 civil rights, disability, parent, community, and education groups, concerned by congressional efforts to lower the standards for highly qualified teachers so not-yet-prepared recruits would be deemed qualified, called on the president and Congress to develop a more effective set of national policies “that will allow the nation to put a well-prepared and effective teacher in every classroom.”

This study examines how and why teacher quality is so inequitably distributed by reviewing research and examining data from California and New York—two large states that face similar demographic diversity and educational challenges. Although New York’s schools are, on average, much better funded—at more than $17,000 per pupil in state and local funding in 2007, compared to California’s $9,700—both experience a wide range of funding across districts, as is true in most states in the country.

In this paper we examine how funding, salaries, and teacher qualifications vary across districts and how these variations affect achievement. We explore whether and to what extent unequal salaries and the district revenues that underlie pay and working conditions may be at the root of the teacher distribution problem. We briefly review the literature on these questions and present analyses from California and New York state. In addition, we discuss strategies that have proven to be successful in recruiting qualified and effective teachers to high-need schools, and we draw implications for federal policy that may finally resolve this dilemma that has for so long reinforced the achievement gap.

We document large differences in school funding across and within states, and we find that the large inequalities in teacher qualifications in the two states we studied are strongly related to differentials in overall school funding and teacher salaries. These differentials are associated with student achievement as well.

In looking at states that have successfully boosted student achievement in conjunction with hiring and retaining better qualified teachers, we find strategies that:

  • Improve and equalize salaries to improve the pool of teachers and level the playing field across districts
  • Simultaneously raise teacher standards and teachers’ knowledge and skills through strengthened preparation and licensing standards, strengthened evaluation for teachers and school leaders, and extensive professional development
  • Improve beginning teacher retention in order to improve effectiveness and lower the wasteful costs of high attrition by developing high-quality mentoring and performance-based induction systems

Federal policy can leverage strong steps toward ensuring every child has access to adequate school resources and quality teachers. To address the inequities outlined in this paper, we recommend that Congress should:

  • Equalize allocations of ESEA resources across states so high-poverty states receive their fair share of funding and inequities across states are lessened
  • Enforce existing ESEA comparability provisions to ensure equitable funding and equally qualified teachers to schools serving different populations of students
  • Assess progress on resource equity in state plans and evaluations under the law, and require states to meet standards of resource equity—including the availability of well-qualified teachers—for schools identified as failing.

Frank Adamson is a postdoctoral scholar at the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education and Linda Darling-Hammond is the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University.

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