Humility Is the Watchword for Feds Hoping to "Fix" Teacher Distribution

Last month, the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor held a hearing to address "equitable" access to effective teachers as part of Chairman George Miller's push to ensure that the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind includes federal language on this score. Miller's agenda dovetails with the Department of Education's Race to the Top fund, which offers federal largesse to those states "ensuring equitable distribution of effective teachers and principals" and judges states based on whether they have "ambitious yet achievable annual targets to increase the number and percentage of highly effective teachers . . . in high-poverty schools."[1]

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has bluntly asserted, "We're still waiting to get great teachers and principals into underperforming schools . . . We're still waiting and we can't wait any longer."[2] Prominent advocacy groups like the Education Trust and the Center for American Progress have actively endorsed this push.[3]

On the one hand, there is much to admire here. Sensible federal action to promote transparency, reward reform-minded state and local leaders, and prod district and union officials to unwind problematic contract provisions can help boost the ranks of talented teachers and situate them where they will be most valuable.

The desire to more equitably distribute effective teachers is an admirable one.

That said, skepticism is warranted when considering Uncle Sam's ability to directly address teacher distribution. There are three particular concerns. One is that ill-conceived policies will encourage districts to move teachers from schools and classrooms where they are effective to situations when they are less effective. The second is that heavy-handed efforts to reallocate teachers will drive good teachers from the profession. The third is that we are far less able to identify "effective" teachers in any cookie-cutter fashion than many who call for federal action might wish.

First, efforts to redistribute effective teachers may shift teachers from schools and classrooms where they are effective to environments where they will be less effective. The skills and expertise that make a teacher effective in one school or with one population may not necessarily transfer to another.

There is good reason to think, as Florida International University's Lisa Delpit has noted, that the skills which make a teacher effective with proficient, affluent students will not necessarily translate to schools serving disadvantaged populations. Many have observed that the highly structured learning strategies employed successfully with low-income students by charter school providers like KIPP or Achievement First would be far less welcome in more affluent environs.

Moreover, there is substantial evidence that teacher effectiveness may be contingent. Scholars including Swarthmore College's Tom Dee and Stanford University's Eric Hanushek have reported, for instance, that students appear to benefit from having a teacher of the same race, suggesting that the matching of teachers and students contributes to the pattern of overall achievement gains.[4] The University of Washington's Dan Goldhaber has observed that the ability of National Board certification to predict teacher quality varies dramatically by subject and grade.[5] Three Duke University economists observed in 2004 that the effects of teacher experience in North Carolina varied with student race and family income.[6]

There is good reason to believe that teacher effectiveness is partly a function of some teachers being better suited for some students, schools, and contexts. To the extent that this is true, redistribution of teachers threatens to generate a lot of disruption for little gain. Indeed, efforts to redistribute teachers without attention to context and constraints could readily reduce the overall quality of teaching. This does not counsel against finding ways to steer teachers to disadvantaged schools; it does suggest that such efforts should be carefully designed and executed with an appreciation for local context, which means they probably should not be guided by broad legislative directives emanating from Washington.

A second concern is that ill-conceived efforts to move seemingly effective teachers from more comfortable schools to more disadvantaged ones may prompt them to leave the profession at higher rates. The consequence would be to push out exactly those teachers we most want to retain.

The University of Pennsylvania's Richard Ingersoll has observed that teachers in high-poverty schools are almost twice as likely to leave teaching as teachers in medium-poverty schools.[7] This is a well-documented finding. RAND researchers have reported "consistent evidence that schools with higher proportions of minority, low-income, and low-performing students tended to have higher attrition rates."[8] It would be a self-defeating, short-sighted strategy to systematically shift effective teachers to the schools where they are most likely to leave the profession. Again, avoiding unintended consequences requires that strategies directing teachers to certain schools be pursued with careful attentions to incentives, retention, and context.

Third, in determining the allocation of "effective" teachers, the critical problem is that, while we know that good teachers matter enormously and have confidence in our ability to identify good teachers in various ways, we don't have any reliable way to consistently identify good teachers from state capitals—much less from Washington.

The "highly qualified teacher" provision of NCLB does not, in fact, identify effective teachers. It identifies those with particular credentials, though there is much evidence that those credentials do not predict performance. Dan Goldhaber has observed that more than 95% of the variation in student gains from one teacher to the next cannot be explained by observable characteristics, including seniority, credentialing, and college attended.[9]

Why not just judge teachers using value-added scores? A small but growing number of states can perform "value-added" calculations based on grade three-to-eight reading and math assessments. However, such scores are only available for a minority of teachers, even in states with the requisite data systems. A more fundamental problem is that these measures are imprecise and of uncertain reliability when just a few years worth of data are being used to judge individual teachers. Finally, equating effectiveness boosting basic math and reading proficiency with broader teacher effectiveness presumes that these teachers will also be predictably excelling in their other charges. To date, there is no evidence supporting this notion and much cause for sensible caution.

Enabling district and school officials to use value-added gains and other metrics as one component of a smart, system-specific strategy makes good sense, but prescribing the use of such crudely drawn metrics from Washington is an entirely different matter.

The desire to more equitably distribute effective teachers is an admirable one.

The challenge of securing effective teaching is first and foremost one of increasing the total number of good teachers. This entails nurturing promising models of alternative licensure, lowering the barriers presented by licensure requirements, encouraging districts to tap the expertise and skills of those who are not full-time educators, and using pay, training, and professional opportunities to attract and cultivate talent. More ambitious strategies, such as rethinking the shape of the teacher's job and the use of technology to deliver instruction, will require a wholesale rethinking of familiar routines.

The desire to more evenly distribute effective teachers is laudable, but let's not undermine successful schools or systems along the way. And let's take care not to unintentionally compromise bolder efforts to attract and retain more good teachers.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI.


  1. U.S. Department of Education. (2009, July 29) Race to the Top Fund: Notice of proposed priorities, requirements, definitions, and selection criteria. Retrieved from
  2. Duncan, A. (2009, September 24) Reauthorization of ESEA: Why We Can't Wait. Remarks given at the Monthly Stakeholders Meeting. Retrieved from
  3. Brown, C., Haycock, K., Williams, J., Winn, E. (August 27, 2009), Joint remarks given on the Proposed Regulations for the Federal State Fiscal Stabilization Fund and Race to the Top Fund. Retrieved from
  4. Dee, T. S. (2004). Teachers, race, and student achievement in a randomized experiment. Review of Economics and Statistics 86(1), 195-210. Hanushek, E. A., Kain, J. F., O'Brien, D. M., & Rivkin, S. G., (2004) The Market for Teacher Quality. Paper prepared for the American Economic Association Meetings.
  5. Goldhaber, D., & Anthony, E. (2006, January 10) Can Teacher Quality Be Effectively Assessed? National Board Certification as a Signal of Effective Teaching. Urban Institute.
  6. Clotfelter, C. T., Ladd, Helen F., & Vigdor, Jacob L. (2004) Teacher Sorting, Teacher Shopping, and the Assessment of Teacher Effectiveness. Duke University.
  7. Smith, T., & Ingersoll, R. (2004). Reducing teacher turnover: What are the components of effective induction? American Educational Research Journal, 41(3), 687–714.
  8. Guarino, C. (RAND) Santibanez, L., & Daley, G. A. (2006) Teacher Recruitment and Retention: A Review of the Recent Empirical Literature. Review of Educational Research 76(2), 173-208.
  9. Goldhaber, D., Brewer, D. J., & D. Anderson. (1999) A Three-Way Error Components Analysis of Educational Productivity. Education Economics, 7 (3), 199–208.
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