Despite being widely known and universally condemned, the stark gap in teacher quality between schools serving large concentrations of minority students and those educating mainly white students has proved frustratingly difficult to address.
As researchers seek to identify the causes of this common predicament, they are increasingly turning their attention to one of the often-cited culprits: teacher contracts.
They are scouring collective bargaining agreements, parsing language governing seniority, and attempting to determine whether stronger protections—provisions requiring transfers to be determined solely by seniority, for instance—bear a relationship to where experienced teachers work.
As a batch of recent studies on the topic indicate, though, scholars aren’t likely to reach any simple answers.
So far, the existing research provides some limited evidence that, for high-minority elementary schools in large districts, seniority language may play a role in teacher-quality gaps. But beyond that, the situation is murky. What’s more, the researchers don’t all agree on how to interpret the results, or even whether the questions that have guided the most recent studies are the appropriate ones.
On one matter, at least, researchers do agree: In an area of policymaking long dominated by anecdote, an empirical examination of contracts is long overdue.
“There is so little work that focuses on exactly how collective bargaining affects how districts and schools are organized, even though it’s obviously critical to how schools and districts do the job of educating students,” said Sarah Anzia, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of one of the newest studies on the topic. “So I think that seeing this flurry of papers and articles is really promising.”
Disparities in teacher quality between schools serving high and low proportions of black and Hispanic students have been documented in various forms for years. The issue recently made national headlines again, thanks to federal civil rights data showing that black students were four times as likely as their white peers to be assigned less-experienced teachers.
State and Federal Efforts
More than ever, state and federal policymakers are trying to address the issue. The U.S. Department of Education plans to advance a “50 state strategy” to tackle the inequitable distribution of teaching quality, for instance, though details on that initiative remain scarce.
The issue has particular relevance, observers say, because of a political climate increasingly hostile to teachers’ unions, and aggressive attempts by advocacy groups to weaken or scrap union seniority protections under the argument that they harm students. The Vergara v. California trial, which concluded March 27 in Los Angeles, takes aim squarely at state rules giving more-senior teachers priority in maintaining their jobs when decisions on layoffs are being made, for example.
Messy and largely understudied, contracts have long been blamed for exacerbating the disparities, but little hard data back up those claims.
With the wave of new research, that’s beginning to change.
Most of the studies have adapted a method first used in 2005 by Terry M. Moe, a professor of public policy at Stanford University and a well-known union critic, to code teachers’ contracts by the degree of restrictiveness of their seniority provisions. Then, researchers match those contracts to administrative records on teachers in each district, and analyze the data using statistical methods to search for patterns.
All of the recent papers look at teacher experience as a gauge of quality, because much research indicates that teachers grow in effectiveness during their first few years on the job.One of the challenges of the approach: Determining how to interpret the findings.
In a 2007 paper, Stanford law professor William Koski and a colleague examined nearly 500 California contracts using a version of the methodology. They concluded that there was no overall pattern linking contract language to the distribution of teachers with nearly two years’ experience across high- and low-minority schools in those districts.
But a new paper by Mr. Moe and Ms. Anzia, of Berkeley, re-evaluated Mr. Koski’s findings using a different set of criteria. In an effort to hone the method further, they restricted the type of contract language examined; limited the analysis to elementary schools; and used a less-conservative test for statistical significance. (The differences in methods occasioned an unusual discussion among the two sets of authors in the pages of the March issue of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.)
The study concludes that in large California districts, more rigid seniority language did, in fact, correspond to a decreasing percentage of experienced teachers located in high-minority schools. Those effects weren’t seen in smaller districts, a factor the researchers attributed to the different cultures of the districts.
“Larger districts tend to be more bureaucratic, more formal. They’re more likely to rely on the formal rules in the contract,” Ms. Anzia said. “In smaller districts, people know each other better. Maybe in those cases, administrators and teachers come to some agreement by which they get around what’s in the formal contract.”
Her comments point to another of the difficulties of this line of research: the reality of how contract language plays out on the ground.
A 2013 study on Florida teachers’ contracts mirrored Mr. Koski’s findings: It couldn’t identify a consistent relationship between the strength of seniority language and where experienced teachers tended to work.
The primary author on the paper, Lora Cohen-Vogel, said it raises questions about whether legislative efforts to minimize seniority would have the desired effect.
“We found no suggestion that eliminating seniority rules is going to be effective in helping us meet the objective of getting teachers to teach in struggling school contexts,” said Ms. Cohen-Vogel, an associate professor of policy and education reform at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
But the finding doesn’t necessarily mean seniority isn’t alive and well in districts, she added. It might reflect the fact that seniority preferences are already so ingrained in district culture that even in districts in which seniority policies are weak or nonexistent,many administrators, consciously or not, use it as factor in teacher placements.
“The story now is, why?” Ms. Cohen-Vogel said. “Why are we seeing no association? Researchers need to move beyond studies using large databases and get into the schools themselves.”
Mr. Koski also underscored that limitation of the research. His own paper suggests, he said, that norms within schools may be more powerful than the formal rules governing seniority.”The specific strength of the language doesn’t matter as much as the impressions and the culture that grow up around the language,” he said. “Almost irrespective of the language, there is a cultural component here, where administrators are simply giving senior teachers the best jobs because they don’t want to lose them, or they’re afraid of the teacher filing a grievance.”
It’s also possible that the provisions simply work differently across states because of other, asyet-unstudied factors.
Some scholars question whether the existing research uses the right lens to tackle the issue.
Relying on the percentage of experienced teachers in each school as an outcome measure poses several problems, they say.
“We don’t think that’s the right thing to look for. There are lots of reasons why those figures look that way,” said Dan Goldhaber, a research professor at the University of Washington Bothell. “Imagine you had a school with lots of retirements. That has nothing to do with the seniority provisions; it’s just the demographics of certain schools.”
In a working paper released last week, Mr. Goldhaber looked at the question using a novel tack: by examining teachers’ own transfer rates, in Washington state districts. His paper found that experienced teachers working in high-minority schools governed by restrictive seniority language were indeed more likely to transfer to other schools than other teachers. But in keeping with the earlier papers, those patterns didn’t seem to have much effect on the overall distribution of experienced teachers in the district.
Research on the topic seems only likely to grow. For instance, none of the studies has yet looked at the relationship between contracts and teacher effectiveness, as measured by growth in students’ test scores.
That matters, because teacher experience isn’t a perfect proxy for performance. Ms. Cohen-Vogel said she is now preparing a study that will examine the link between contracts and where the most effective teachers are located.
While most scholars praised the flood of new research, Mr. Koski injected a note of caution about overinterpreting the current limited findings for making policy.
“I’m afraid we won’t look at using resources to attract and retain the best teachers. Instead we’ll be fussing around with this employment language,” he said. “The politics around this have become quite supercharged, and might create a situation where some of the efforts to do things collaboratively and experimentally on the ground are going to get stifled.”
By Stephen Sawchuk