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Power Play? Teacher Characteristics and Class Assignments

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Document date: March 23, 2011
Released online: April 01, 2011
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While prior research has documented differences in the distribution of teacher characteristics across schools serving different student populations, few studies have examined how teacher sorting occurs within schools. Comparing teachers who teach in the same grade and school in a given year, we find less experienced, minority, and female teachers are assigned students with lower average prior achievement, more prior behavioral problems, and lower prior attendance rates than their more experienced, white and male colleagues. Though more effective (higher value-added ) teachers and those with advanced degrees are also assigned less difficult classes, controlling for these factors does not eliminate the association between experience, race, gender, and assignments. These patterns have negative implications for teacher retention given the importance of working conditions for teachers' career decisions.

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The literature on effective schools emphasizes the importance of a quality teaching force in improving educational outcomes for students (Brewer 1993; Mortimore 1993; Sammons, Hillman, and Mortimore 1995; Taylor, Pearson, Clark, and Walpole 2000). The effect of teachers on student achievement is particularly well established (Nye, Konstantopoulos, and Hedges 2004; Rivkin, Hanushek, and Kain 2005; Rockoff 2004). However, teachers are not randomly assigned to schools or students. Many prior studies have documented the ways in which the teacher labor market works to disadvantage urban schools (Boyd, Lankford, Loeb, and Wyckoff 2005a; Hanushek, Kain, and Rivkin 2004; Lankford, Loeb, and Wyckoff 2002). These schools often face difficulty attracting and retaining effective teachers (Ferguson 1998; Krei 1998; Lankford, Loeb, and Wyckoff 2002). Between-school sorting disadvantages schools with high concentrations of low-income, minority, and low-achieving students. Students from such backgrounds are less likely to be exposed to experienced and highly qualified teachers compared to their more advantaged counterparts attending other schools.

Less clear from prior research, however, is the extent to which the systematic matching of teachers to students also occurs within schools. In this paper we present a comprehensive analysis of teacher assignments in a large urban school district. We examine the relationships between teacher characteristics and classroom assignments and whether school-level factors moderate these associations. Our analyses focus on differences in classroom assignments among teachers who teach the same grade in the same school in a given year. We find that teachers’ human capital—measured by their highest degree, experience, and effectiveness in raising student achievement—is a consistent predictor of the types of students they are assigned. This pattern may result from a strategic effort on the part of school leaders to retain their most competent employees. We also find that less experienced, minority, and female teachers are assigned more challenging classes than their colleagues at their school. The results are consistent across a wide range of class characteristics and at both the elementary and middle and high school levels. Controlling for teacher differences in our measures of human capital does not mediate the relationship between teacher experience, race, gender and class assignments.

We posit that the relationships between experience, race, gender and class assignments we document are driven, in part, by power relations among teachers and school leaders, though pressures from parents to have their children matched with certain teachers may also contribute to the patterns. Assignments may be influenced by informal network ties among teachers and relationships with school leaders which could serve to advantage more experienced teachers, white or male teachers. For example, more experienced teachers have more power within schools and more knowledge about how the assignment process occurs, making it easier for them to have their preferences met when it comes to the students they are assigned. Prior qualitative research suggests that more senior teachers closely guard the most desirable courses and often exclude new teachers from the class assignment process (Finley 1984; Monk 1987). Consistent with this argument, we find that new teachers receive the most challenging class assignments when they work in schools with more experienced colleagues. Novice teachers receive particularly challenging assignments when they work in schools with more senior colleagues and when there is more stability among the senior teaching force at a school. Presumably, it is in such contexts that new teachers have the least power, and that networks and relationships among more experienced teachers are especially strong.

Some of the relationship between class assignments and race that we observe may be due to black and Hispanic teachers’ preferences for or superior effectiveness with minority students and lowincome students, as suggested by prior research (Dee 2005; Downey and Pribesh 2004; Mueller, Finley, Iverson, and Price 1999). However, we also find that black and Hispanic teachers are assigned lower achieving students with more behavioral problems even after we control for the racial makeup of their classes. The assignment of black and Hispanic teachers to more challenging classes is especially prevalent when schools have more white teachers and when schools are led by a white principal. This finding is consistent with a wide body of literature on racial differences in job rewards within work organizations. Minorities’ often receive more challenging job assignments, fewer promotion opportunities, or less favorable evaluation from supervisors, particularly when their supervisor is white (Greenhaus, Parasuraman, and Wormley 1990; Kanter 1977; Tsui and O'Reilly 1989).

The patterns of assignment we document are likely to be harmful for both teachers and students. Prior research suggests that teachers are more likely to leave their school when they receive more challenging class assignments (Donaldson and Johnson 2010; Feng 2010) and that students learn less in years they are assigned novice teachers (Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor 2006; Murnane and Phillips 1981; Nye, Konstantopoulos, and Hedges 2004; Rockoff 2004). The assignment of less experienced teachers to more black, low-income, and low achieving students is likely to exacerbate within school achievement gaps given that new teachers are less effective in raising student achievement than their more experienced counterparts. Within school sorting may undermine policy interventions aimed at reducing the uneven distribution of highly qualified and experienced teachers across schools. Some policies, for example, may offer financial incentives for teachers to enter or stay in harder to staff schools (Hough and Loeb 2009). Such policies will not be as effective as intended if the most experienced or effective teachers in these schools are assigned to the relatively least disadvantaged or highest achieving students. Within school sorting may prevent the most effective teachers from being matched to students who need them most even if the sorting of teachers between schools is minimized.

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Topics/Tags: | Education

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