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September 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 1

A Tough Assignment

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School Culture
Before I took my first job as a middle school science teacher, one of the biggest challenges I faced was figuring out where I wanted to teach. It wasn't just that it was hard to know which school offered the kind of working environment I wanted, it was that I didn't even know exactly what kind of working environment I wanted in the first place. I didn't have a clear sense of the kinds of students I wanted to work with, the colleagues I wanted to have, or the organizational structures I wanted to work within.
I ended up getting lucky, landing a job in a school that offered many of the things I knew I did want—like highly organized and committed coworkers—as well as some things I didn't know I wanted, like the ability to stay with the same students through both 7th and 8th grade.
Not all new teachers are as lucky as I was. My recent research has shown that, when it comes to working conditions, new teachers face a particularly tough hurdle: They often lose out on the most attractive teaching assignments to more experienced teachers (Bruno, Rabovsky, & Strunk, 2019).
As a Ph.D. student in urban education policy at the University of Southern California, I am involved in a partnership with the Los Angeles Unified School District to study how to hire and support new teachers. Informed by our collaboration with the district, and by my own experience as a teacher, my colleagues Sarah Rabovsky and Katharine Strunk and I decided to look at the kinds of teaching placements new teachers in Los Angeles get, and whether different kinds of assignments are linked to different outcomes for teachers.
We began with administrative data provided by the district of more than 40,000 teachers over 10 years. Because these data allowed us to link teachers to schools and to classrooms, we were able to gather a lot of information about each teacher's students and colleagues. This, in turn, allowed us to paint a fairly detailed picture of certain aspects of teachers' working conditions.
In all, we considered more than two dozen factors relating to teacher assignments and organized them into four broad categories.
  1. Instructional Load: How much extra instructional work do teachers have, either because their students have greater needs (for example, because they had low achievement in the past or are English language learners) or because they have more students or a unique course to teach?
  2. Homophily: To what extent do teachers share similarities, including in race or gender, with their students or coworkers? Research both inside and outside of education indicates that these kinds of matches between people are often important for forming social bonds (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Cook, 2001).
  3. Colleague Qualifications: Do teachers have harder-working or more highly skilled coworkers? Do other teachers in their school miss a lot of work or get better evaluation ratings? Are their school administrators highly experienced?
  4. Professional Culture: Do teachers work in schools where staff report having enough autonomy and productive relationships with administrators, parents, and each other?
We then looked at whether the placements of novices and veterans are different along those four dimensions, and whether those differences are related to teachers' outcomes. Our results suggest three main lessons for practice: First, teacher working conditions are complicated and can't always easily be summarized as "good" or "bad." Second, "novice" teachers—which we define as teachers in their first five years in the classroom—often have the most challenging assignments. And finally, education leaders need to find ways to improve working conditions for all teachers whenever possible.

Working Conditions Are Complicated

Teacher placements are often discussed in binary terms—good or bad. But our research showed that, in terms of the working conditions and outcomes they create for teachers, it's more complicated: Placements that are challenging along one dimension are not necessarily challenging along another. For example, it's not unusual for teachers in our data set to teach many high-need students, but also to work with many experienced and highly skilled teachers and to share similarities with many of their students and colleagues (which generally count as positive working conditions). The outcomes from different aspects of a placement can be complex as well. For example, novice teachers with more qualified colleagues tend to have better attendance, but not better evaluation ratings. Conversely, new teachers in schools with a better professional culture have better evaluation ratings, but not necessarily better attendance.
That said, certain factors related to placement do seem to have a negative influence across the board for all teachers. Teachers with higher levels of instructional load—whether they are novices or veterans—tend to have worse outcomes along all of the measures we consider. They get lower evaluation ratings, have poorer attendance at work, and are more likely to leave their schools or the district. Their students also make smaller gains on standardized tests.
What this tells us is that administrators should make sure that their newest teachers aren't always assigned to the schools or classrooms with the lowest-achieving students or with the most disciplinary issues. But beyond that, they need to think carefully about the trade-offs of particular placements, perhaps prioritizing some positive working conditions over others depending on their school's or the teacher's needs.
The most suitable placement for a specific teacher might depend on her specific needs or areas of weakness. If teachers have the potential to feel out of place or need additional professional support, for example, they could benefit from additional homophily or stronger coworkers. Similarly, a teacher who already collaborates well with colleagues but is struggling with classroom management may benefit more from being given smaller class sizes than from moving into a school with a stronger professional culture.

It's Harder for New Teachers

The second finding that stood out in our research was that novice teachers do in fact get more challenging placements than veteran teachers. They have higher levels of instructional load than veterans, working in schools and classrooms with lower-achieving and lower-income students, and with students with more suspensions and school absences. Newer teachers also enjoy less homophily than veterans, particularly in terms of race. That is, they are less likely than their more experienced colleagues to have a same-race administrator and are more likely to have fewer same-race students or fellow teachers.
Novices also tend to work with colleagues with weaker qualifications on average. They are more likely to be in schools where their administrators are less experienced and their colleagues tend to have lower evaluation ratings, are less likely to be National Board Certified, and make smaller test score gains with their students.
We found these patterns among elementary, secondary, and special education teachers. And not only do less experienced teachers work in schools with less desirable working conditions, but even within a given school, the most experienced teachers are often placed in the most attractive assignments.
Placing new teachers in situations where they are likely to have a harder time succeeding can also have important equity implications for students. In such cases, the teachers are more likely to be assigned to some of the highest-need students, and their students tend to make smaller gains on standardized tests. Therefore, the most educationally disadvantaged students being taught by the least experienced teachers. And, since these teachers are being assigned larger numbers of these students, they are also less effective in their teaching.
So why do new teachers get tougher assignments? Our research didn't study this question directly, but the reality is complex, of course—teachers' assignments are determined by a combination of teacher preferences; decisions by administrators; and existing laws, regulations, and labor agreements about who can or must teach in different classrooms.
There are potential levers for change that school leaders can consider, however. For example, in many schools and districts, one of the most important factors in determining where teachers work is the collective bargaining agreement between the district and its teachers' union. These agreements often include provisions related to how teachers can be transferred between school sites or assigned to classrooms within schools, and they often give teachers with more seniority greater flexibility than novices when choosing where to work. Negotiating rules or otherwise adjusting policy to give less priority to teachers with more experience, if possible, may help to ensure that novice teachers are not disproportionately assigned to the most challenging placements.
And even if there are no formal rules in place for determining teachers' assignments, more experienced teachers often know more about what different schools or classrooms will be like. They "know the ropes" about how to work with school and district administrators to get the most desirable placements. School leaders who want to be more equitable in their assignments, therefore, should be diligent in communicating in a timely manner with all staff—and especially with newer teachers—about the assignment options available to teachers in the coming year. It may also be helpful to establish protocols that give all teachers an opportunity to share their preferences, such as having them rank their potential assignments. One-on-one meetings with new teachers can also give administrators the opportunity to help their less experienced staff think through the advantages and disadvantages of different potential assignments.

Improve Conditions for All Teachers

Unfortunately, when we improve working conditions for some teachers, it might mean making working conditions worse for other teachers. That is, even if novices and veterans are assigned to placements more equitably, teachers and students won't necessarily be better off on average—because somebody has to take the tough assignments. Since higher levels of instructional load are associated with lower student achievement growth no matter what the teacher's level of experience is, just moving novices out of (and veterans into) placements with higher instructional load might do little to improve overall working conditions or student achievement.
So how can school leaders make sure teachers are not only assigned more equitably, but more effectively overall? In other words, what can be done to improve working conditions for all teachers?
Our research suggests some potential considerations for administrators. First, school leaders should keep in mind that a teaching assignment may be more challenging for some teachers than for others. For example, ours is one of several recent studies to find that there are some benefits when teachers have more students and coworkers of the same race or gender as themselves (Grissom, Nicholson-Crotty, & Keiser, 2012; Sun, 2018). This highlights the fact that sometimes the best—or worst—working conditions aren't just about the teaching assignment itself but are more about the match between the assignment and the teacher. If teachers can be better matched to schools or to classes based on their needs or the needs of their students, this may help to improve teachers' working conditions overall. Our study suggests that there are advantages for teachers when they are matched to students and colleagues of the same race, but it might be that teachers could get similar benefits from professional development aimed at helping them work with students and coworkers with backgrounds different from their own. Other types of matches, not considered in our work, may also be important. For example, teachers with relevant skills and experience may do better in classrooms with large numbers of English language learners, and teachers may enjoy more success when their instructional philosophy aligns with that of a school, even if the working conditions there might otherwise be described as challenging.
Professional development can also help align the skills of teachers to the demands of their jobs. If administrators know that many students in their schools, such as English language learners, will need unique or additional educational supports, they can offer additional professional development that helps teachers provide those supports. This may help teachers navigate professional obligations that might otherwise overwhelm them and make them a better fit for certain kinds of assignments.
Second, if working conditions can be improved across an entire school or district, this will benefit all teachers without having to reassign some teachers into more challenging placements. Schoolwide initiatives to improve student discipline or attendance, for example, may reduce the total instructional load experienced by all teachers. In addition, staff training aimed at providing teachers with the skills and opportunities needed to collaborate with their coworkers could improve schools' professional cultures for everyone.

Doing the Best We Can with What We Know

Teaching is hard, especially the first few years in the classroom, and teachers' working conditions matter. Yet there is a great deal we don't yet know about which working conditions matter most or how to improve them. Nevertheless, research is increasingly illuminating important considerations for school leaders who want to make sure that their new teachers are well supported.
Administrators not only need to consider whether assignments are given equitably to teachers with different levels of experience, but also need to carefully weigh trade-offs between many different aspects of the working conditions associated with each assignment. Doing these things successfully will often require difficult changes both to official policy and to informal practice in schools. Yet providing teachers—and especially the most novice teachers—with the best possible working conditions is essential not only for ensuring teachers' success, but also that of their students.

Bruno, P., Rabovsky, S. J., & Strunk, K. O. (2019). Taking their first steps: The distribution of new teachers into school and classroom contexts and implications for teacher effectiveness and growth. CALDER Working Paper No. 212-0119-1.

Grissom, J. A., Nicholson-Crotty, J., & Keiser, L. (2012). Does my boss's gender matter? Explaining job satisfaction and employee turnover in the public sector. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 22(4), 649–673.

McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Cook, J. M. (2001). Birds of a feather: Homophily in social networks. Annual Review of Sociology, 27(1), 415–444.

Sun, M. (2018). Black teachers' retention and transfer patterns in North Carolina: How do patterns vary by teacher effectiveness, subject, and school conditions? AERA Open, 4(3), 1–23.

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