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Another Reason Bad Schools Stay Bad

2012 May 5
by Eric Horowitz

As if there weren’t enough self-perpetuating social and economic phenomena that make it difficult for poor neighborhoods to change, Stanford’s Michelle Reininger highlights a new one: Teachers are significantly more likely than other professionals to work near where they grew up.

Teachers’ preference for working close to where they grew up is a distinct characteristic of teachers, and the author further explores the implications of those preferences for schools facing chronic shortages of teachers. The author finds that the local nature of the labor force and the differential rates of graduation and production of teachers from traditionally hard-to-staff schools are reinforcing existing deficits of local teacher labor supply.

The story would go something like this: “Good” neighborhoods produce a higher proportion of “good” teachers (through better high schools and higher college graduation rates), but the preference to stay close to home keeps those teachers from proliferating out into “bad” neighborhoods. Meanwhile, “bad” neighborhoods are stuck with a smaller teacher supply that’s composed of teachers with poorer credentials.

This strikes me as the kind of finding people will use to confirm the need for whatever solution their ideology and preconceived notions prescribe. Some might say it means we need more teacher training, higher salaries, and an environment less critical of teachers. Other’s might say it demonstrates the need to focus more on attainment measures like college readiness and college graduation.

For me, the study is another clear sign of the need to build an infrastructure for integrating computer-based cognitive tutors into the classroom. Putting aside the massive efficiency gains from having every student get instruction tailored to their specific strengths, weaknesses, and motivational tendencies, the ubiquity of cognitive tutors will also smooth over many of the inequities in teacher quality. We may not be there yet, but in the next 5 to 10 years computers will be able to instantaneously do at least 90% of what a teachers can when it comes to identifying, explaining, and correcting student mistakes and misconceptions involving math. Whereas only once school can employ the best teacher, every school can use the best cognitive tutor software.
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Reininger, M. (2011). Hometown Disadvantage? It Depends on Where You’re From: Teachers’ Location Preferences and the Implications for Staffing Schools Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 34 (2), 127-145 DOI: 10.3102/0162373711420864

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