A Link Between Teacher Contracts and Teacher-Quality Gaps?

Teacher contracts have recently received much attention nationally. After recent federal civil rights data showed that black students are four times as likely as their white peers to be assigned less-experienced teachers, teacher contracts are being linked with teacher-quality gaps. These results have prompted the United States Department of Education to create a “50 state strategy” to tackle the inequitable distribution of quality teachers.

An Education Week article by Stephen Sawchuk published in April 2014 entitled Are Contracts to Blame for Teacher-Quality Gaps? examines recent studies focusing on the relationship between teacher contracts and teacher quality, including a study by UNC Chapel Hill education professor, Lora Cohen Vogel. Sawchuk concludes that there are no simple solutions for the gap in teacher quality between schools serving large concentrations of minority students and those educating primarily white students. Here is what he found in his review of the literature:

  • Teacher seniority seems to play a role in teacher-quality gaps in high-minority elementary schools within large districts.
  • Different researchers interpret results differently, making conclusions more difficult to define and compare.
  • Researchers agree that an empirical examination of teacher contracts is overdue, particularly now that teachers’ union, tenure, and other seniority protections are under attack. For example, Koski and Horng (2007) found that there was no pattern linking contract language and teacher distribution with nearly two years’ experience across high- and low-minority schools, yet Moe and Anzia argue that when you reevaluate the data using different criteria there is a link between contract language and teacher distribution.
  • All of the research reviewed for this article views experience as a gauge for teacher quality because there is a large amount of empirical evidence that teachers grow more effective during their first few years within the profession.
  • Cohen Vogel’s research shows that current research does not suggest that eliminating seniority rules will help meet the goal of getting high-quality teachers into struggling schools.

The article also shared some of the gaps that exist within the present research. For example, the article suggests the possibility of using teacher transfer rates as a quality indicator to better understand the relationship between contracts and teacher effectiveness. The article also cautions against overanalyzing data when creating new policies. Cohen Vogel is working towards closing these research gaps by preparing a study that will examine the relationship between contracts and where the most effective teachers are located. While there is much to be done in this area of educational research, researchers are working together to find ways to reduce inequitable education.