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A Question of Quality: Do schools hire the best teachers? Probably not

Tuesday, February 04, 2003

By Carmen J. Lee, Post-Gazette Education Writer

Most school officials intend to hire good teachers.

They solicit applications, screen resumes and interview candidates.

Sto-Rox Superintendent Anthony Skender uses salesmanship and an appeal to candidates' altruistic motives to recruit teachers to a school district where the starting salary is $25,000. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

And at each stage, they'll tell you they're looking for qualified individuals who will be the right fit for their districts.

But local and national education experts contend that too often, school officials -- particularly those in low-income areas-- focus more on filling jobs quickly than on building a high-quality teaching staff.

"What I hear is that most [local] school districts wait for the applications to flow in. There is a lackadaisical aspect to all this," said Lauren Resnick, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research and Development Center, a nationally known organization that pushes for higher standards in public schools.

The effort that some school officials put into recruiting top teachers can vary widely, said Charles Gorman, executive director of the Tri-State Area School Study Council at Pitt.

More in today's report

Online chart:
Who got the job?

Online chart:
Teacher snapshot

Superintendent's challenge: Hire 50 new teachers at once

Join a Town Meeting on teacher quality

About the series

Day One: Examining the roots of uneven instruction quality in our schools

Day Two: A question of quality: Are teacher entrance tests tough enough?


"A lot depends on the attitude of the superintendent," he said. "If it's a high priority for the superintendent, then you'll see change. Where it's not a high priority, it doesn't happen, so it's left for good people to find their way into the system."

There is no question that hiring good teachers can make a vital difference.

Studies in Texas and Tennessee have shown that the years students spend in classrooms with good teachers improved their performance on achievement tests.

"Good teachers matter and they matter a lot," said Thomas Carroll, executive director of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. "If students are in a school where they consistently receive quality teaching year to year and class to class, they have a significant advantage."

Research done by the Post-Gazette for this series has shown that students in more affluent districts are more likely to get those kinds of teachers than students in lower-income districts are. And there seems to be a strong correlation between teacher quality and student test scores in those districts, as well.

Wealthy Allegheny County school districts such as Upper St. Clair, Quaker Valley and North Allegheny attracted more new teachers with master's degrees and full-time experience. Of the last 30 teachers hired in those districts, 19 had master's degrees and 17 had previous experience as full-time teachers.

In the same districts, the percentage of eighth-graders who scored at the proficient and advanced levels in math on standardized state tests ranged from 67.1 to 87.5 percent; in reading, from 71.6 to 89.2 percent.

By contrast, of the last 30 teachers hired in the low-income Sto-Rox, Wilkinsburg and Duquesne districts, only five had master's degrees. Fourteen had previous full-time teaching experience.

Among those districts' eighth-graders, the percentage of those at the proficient and advanced level in math ranged from 1.6 to 31.4 percent; and in reading, from 8.1 to 34.4 percent.

Family backgrounds for the students in these districts obviously play a major part in test results. But several studies have shown that teacher quality can make an impact on test scores, even after allowing for demographic differences.

One reason for the difference in qualifications among the teachers hired in wealthier and poorer districts is the pay scale for new employees.

Beginning teacher salaries in Allegheny County, for instance, can range between $25,000 and $35,000 a year.

Districts on the low end of the pay scale have to work harder to attract good teachers.

One example is Sto-Rox, one of five in Western Pennsylvania that have been declared "empowerment districts" because of low student test scores.

Superintendent Anthony Skender said the large percentage of low-income students, along with the district's comparatively low starting salary of $25,000, mean that he has to employ salesmanship and an appeal to candidates' altruistic motives.

"I just can't throw money at problems," Skender said. "I tell college kids, 'We need you. You can make a difference. If we can't offer more money, we can offer something to build your soul.' There are still kids out there who believe in that kind of thing."

Affluent districts, on the other hand, may get hundreds or even thousands of unsolicited applications.

Quaker Valley in the Sewickley area received about 900 applications last year. The average number of unsolicited applications that flow into Upper St. Clair annually is about 4,000, and includes prospective teachers from as far away as Alaska, California and Florida.

A large pool

While other regions have to recruit out of state or even out of the country to meet their demand for teachers, many Western Pennsylvania districts can generate most of their candidates from responses to ads, applications on file, their substitute teachers' lists, or by using the Allegheny Intermediate Unit's Internet teacher employment service, called Pa-Educator.Net.

Those sources are usually sufficient because Pennsylvania colleges graduate far more new teachers than districts in the state can hire. Last year, for instance, the state Board of Education certified 10,520 new teachers, but only 4,384 were hired.

Teaching job openings also attract more applicants because Pennsylvania, at $52,832, has the highest average teacher salary in the country.

But having ready access to so many applicants may not yield the best teachers.

"It's not so much whether your state is producing enough teachers, it's whether they are producing the right kind of teacher in terms of quality and diversity," said Mildred Hudson, chief executive officer for Recruiting New Teachers, a Belmont, Mass., nonprofit devoted to improving teacher recruiting nationally.

"Are they producing enough teachers in the specific areas where teachers are needed? Are they serving those districts that need them most?"

Hiring top teachers is half the battle. Keeping them is the other half.

"If schools worked to reduce the turnover rate, they would have to hire fewer teachers. And if they hired fewer teachers, they could be more selective," Carroll said.

A recent report by Carroll's commission found that almost a third of all new teachers leave the classroom after three years, and that close to 50 percent leave after five years. In all, more than a quarter of a million teachers stop teaching every year.

"The conventional wisdom is that we can't find enough good teachers when the problem is that we can't keep good teachers," he said.

That is less of a problem in Pennsylvania, though, where the turnover rate is relatively low, averaging 8.7 percent annually.

Local turnover rates included 1.7 percent in North Allegheny and about 10 percent in Duquesne. Retirements caused the few staff changes in North Allegheny, while most of the turnover in Duquesne came from teachers leaving for jobs elsewhere.

Carroll's commission has found that teachers are more likely to stick with their jobs if they have been well-trained; if they have had good previous teaching experiences; and if they've received feedback on their teaching from mentors.

Mentoring is important

School officials should look at hiring as a two-stage process, said Adam Urbanski, director of the Teacher Union Reform Network, a national union-led initiative to promote education reform.

"They should scrutinize candidates' credentials, references and give some type of pre-test, but that's just the preamble," he said. "Then they should withhold judgment for a year while new teachers undergo mentoring."

Pennsylvania law requires school districts to have "induction programs" for first-year teachers that last at least one school year and must include teacher mentors.

Mentoring quality varies widely, though.

In the Pittsburgh Public Schools, for instance, "instructional teacher leaders" in each building are supposed to help both new and long-term colleagues hone their skills. But whether a new teacher receives individual mentoring for a year depends on how many new teachers are assigned to a school.

More extensive is the program in Upper St. Clair, where all new teachers are assigned master teachers in their field as mentors for two years. New teachers also are required to participate in seminars throughout the year, including a two-day orientation before the beginning of school.

And to help prevent burnout, school officials also should avoid "sink or swim placement" of new teachers in the most challenging schools or classrooms, Carroll said.

Home-grown teachers

One way urban districts can improve their pool of applicants and maintain racial and ethnic diversity, said Hudson of the Recruiting New Teachers group, is by "growing their own" candidates.

Districts can create middle and high school programs that encourage youngsters to go into teaching and provide them with opportunities to explore the profession. They also can form partnerships with local colleges to offer teachers' aides the opportunity to earn teaching degrees.

The Pittsburgh school district has tried both approaches.

Some districts also add extra twists to increase the quality of new hires.

Shaler and Quaker Valley, for example, use the Gallup Organization's Teacher Perceiver and Teacher Insight as part of their interviewing process.

The Teacher Perceiver, which is conducted in person, and the Teacher Insight, done online, are used by about 1,100 school districts across the country. Both include a series of questions designed to identify qualities essential to good teaching.

Quaker Valley officials also are so determined to have candidates teach sample lessons that even when school is out during the summer, they "round up students off the street" to sit on the sessions, said Assistant Superintendent Joseph Clapper.

The Pittsburgh district may have the most unique formal system in the region because it is required by state law to maintain an eligibility list, which ranks applicants according to a score based on points given in different categories.

Applicants receive points for interviews and evaluations, and for performance on the national teachers' exams, experience in an urban school district and whether candidates are city alumni.

Full-time teachers have to be hired from the top third of the eligibility list under this procedure, which was enacted decades ago to help prevent graft and favoritism as well as maintain quality, said district spokeswoman Pat Crawford.

The bottom line

Do these various hiring practices yield better teachers?

While the Post-Gazette research shows that affluent districts have an advantage in the kind of teaching candidates they attract, that's not the whole story.

There also are districts whose teachers don't seem as highly qualified that have been described as "beating the odds" by a state-sponsored Standard & Poors report. Such districts have produced above-average student scores despite having large percentages of poor youngsters.

Next in the series

Even in schools with large numbers of black children, there are few black teachers. Why isn't the teaching force in Western Pennsylvania more diverse?

Are you frustrated with your child's teachers? There are ways to help ensure the quality of your district's teachers.


Among them are Highlands in Allegheny County, Ellwood City Area in Lawrence County and Titusville Area in Venango County.

In those districts, the teachers' performances on the state content exam known as the Professional Development Assistance Program have been mediocre, ranging from average to slightly below average.

Even in districts with below-average student and teacher test results, administrators defend their teachers, saying they have to find employees with a special blend of rapport, work ethic and courage because their youngsters have so many social and family problems.

Daniel Stephens, principal of the middle and high schools in the low-rated Duquesne City School District, looks for teachers who know their subjects, can relate to children from varied backgrounds and can motivate students.

"The person who comes here is one who's a teacher at heart," he said. "They come into Duquesne and they see the challenges here, and if they want to be challenged, they'll stay."

Carmen Lee can be reached at clee@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1884.

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