Monday, January 11, 2010

Are NYC Schools a Farm System for the Suburbs?

Conventional wisdom when I was teaching in NYC seemed to be that, to some degree, NYC served as a farm system for the surrounding counties' school systems.  In other words, teachers would get a job in NYC, teach for maybe 1-5 years, and then look for a job on the suburbs.  Since the city had fewer certified teachers than openings, it was much easier for recent grads and career changers to find a job there.  Once they'd gotten some experience under their belt, they then might be able to land a position in the ultra-competitive suburban job market (where hundreds of teachers often apply for each opening).  According to conventional wisdom, finding a job in the suburbs meant you could work in a more pleasant environment (fewer discipline problems, more resources, smaller classes) and earn more at the same time.

A number of teachers at my school had chosen this route, and came back from hiring fairs and job interviews in the suburbs with stories of long lines and selective hiring criteria.  Which makes sense: if you were running a school and there were a ton of qualified, experienced, certified teachers applying for a job why would you hire somebody else?

As I was searching for statistics for another project on the NY state education website, I decided to see if there was any quantitative evidence that NYC is, to some extent, the minor league system that feeds the major league systems in the suburbs.  I compared some statistics from NYC to those from surrounding counties (Nassau and Suffolk on Long Island and Westchester and Rockland north of the city).

As it turns out, there's evidence that teachers in NYC are younger, less experienced, paid less, and teach larger classes than those who teach in the surrounding counties.  Consider the following statistics:

*On average, the median teacher in surrounding counties has 3.2 more years of experience (12.2 v. 9) than does the median NYC teacher

*The surrounding counties, on average, have about half as many teachers with fewer than 5 years of teaching experience as does NYC (16.7% v. 32. 2%)

*On average, the median teacher in surrounding counties earns almost $20,000 more per year (89K v. 69K) than does the median NYC teacher.

*The percentage of teachers under the age of 27 is 2.5 times higher in NYC than the average in surrounding counties (5.6% v. 2.25%).

*The average 6th grade class is 25% larger (26.5 v. 21.2) in NYC than in the rest of the state.

Not all of these statistics, however, are very striking.  Over 2/3 of teachers in NYC, for example, are 33 or older.  That's not exactly damning evidence that every teacher in NYC is young, inexperienced, and trying to find a job in the suburbs.  But we have to take remember that not every teacher wants to leave NYC.  There are quite a few schools in the city that are desirable places to work and employ a lot of experienced teachers.  If we look at just the Bronx, the borough with the highest poverty rates, we see slightly more striking numbers.  This is how the median teacher in the Bronx compares to the average median teacher in the two counties bordering the Bronx:

Median Experience % under age 26 % <5 yrs experience

Bronx 8 yrs
9.4% 39.2%
N. Suburbs 12.5 yrs
1.85% 15.15%

So, yes, there's a significant difference in the age and experience levels of teachers in NYC and the suburbs -- and an even larger difference between teachers in the Bronx and the northern suburbs.  But that doesn't prove that teachers are flocking from NYC to the suburbs -- it just proves that teachers are younger and less experienced.

The closest thing I can find to proof of that is comparing the difference between the average total experience of teachers versus the average amount of experience within that district in the city versus the suburbs.  If we look at the different percentiles listed on the website, we can see that the vast majority of teachers in the city have been in the city for their entire careers -- the same is not true of suburban teachers:

NYC: Years of Experience by Percentile

5th 25th 50th 75th 95th
Total 1 4 9 19 32
In District 1 4 9 17 31

Suburbs: Years of Experience by Percentile

5th 25th 50th 75th 95th
Total 2.5 7.25 12.25 20.25 32
In District 1 5 9 14.75 27.75

Most teachers in NYC have spent more time teaching in NYC than has the average Suburban teacher with the same relative seniority level; this despite the fact that suburban teachers, on average, are more experienced.  There can be only one explanation for this: suburban teachers switch districts more frequently.  I suspect some of that has to do with teachers switching between the smaller districts in the suburbs in order to procure a better job (maybe one closer to home), but it's at least plausible that some of that is because a number of suburban teachers taught in the city prior to finding their current job.

Just judging by these numbers, it's not possible to quite grasp the magnitude of the situation -- exactly how many NYC teachers are fleeing for the suburbs each year?  But it's probably worth both investigating further and addressing.  Assuming that this is, in fact, a problem, I don't see any easy solutions.  If suburban jobs pay more to teach fewer kids in a better working environment (and often closer to home), what, exactly, is the city supposed to do in order to retain these teachers?  Sure, the city could spend more money to reduce class sizes and/or teaching loads or raise teacher salaries -- but they're never going to match the spending levels of the suburbs.  They could work on fostering better working environments (in their defense, there's at least a half-hearted attempt at this in the form of the annual school surveys), or try to recruit teachers who aren't aiming to bolt for the 'burbs in a few years. 

Or they could do what they're doing now: save a ton of money by hiring people from Teach for America, the NYC Teaching Fellows, and the suburbs -- few of whom will stay long enough to earn much money yet alone a pension.


Claus von Zastrow said...

Are there good data on the COST of high turnover among young teachers (TFA or otherwise) compared to the savings they represent in salaries and benefits?

Corey Bunje Bower said...

No. At least as far as I can tell. There has been at least one report in the past couple years that tried to put a number on the cost of teacher turnover, but the estimates seemed somewhat high to me.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Also, I should add that while my inner economist is somewhat attracted to the idea of bringing in a bunch of youngsters to work for a few years instead of paying career teachers, I have at least one huge problem with the way that's happening right now:

While that's very much the way that some schools operate (say, high-poverty middle schools -- where almost half of the teachers are in their first or second year in the school and about a third have 5 or more years of teaching experience), it's not the way that other schools operate (think low-poverty elementary schools, for example). I can't think of any reason why poor kids should have a steady stream of young, cheap teachers while more well-off kids should have their schools staffed by careerists.

Nancy Flanagan said...

NCTAF did a study fairly recently that provides a balanced look at what it costs a district to recruit, hire and provide PD or mentoring for a new teacher:

A quote from the Executive Summary:

"The costs of teacher turnover are substantial. In both small and large districts, the study found that the costs of recruiting, hiring, and training a replacement teacher are substantial. In Granville County, North Carolina, the cost of each teacher who left the district was just under $10,000. In a small rural district
such as Jemez Valley, New Mexico, the cost per teacher leaver is $4,366. In Milwaukee, the average cost per teacher leaver was $15,325. In a very large district like Chicago, the average cost was $17,872 per leaver. The total cost of turnover in the Chicago Public
Schools is estimated to be over $86 million per year."

Ceolaf said...

There are some basic problems with your analysis, Mr. Bower.

1) There are SO many schools in NYC that a statistic the measures time in district is not really a good measure of teacher mobility. Districts around NYC -- and this is true of suburban districts throughout the Northeast -- as usually rather small. In the NE districts are town based, rather than county-based. So, in the NYC 'burbs, a teacher might go to a neighboring high school and have changed districts. If they move two or three high schools over, they certainly have changed districts. That is not the case in NYC.

You don't actually show that teachers are leaving NYC for the suburbs. You present no evidence that suburban teachers are just moving among suburban districts. Why aren't you using data on how long teachers have been in the same school? Wouldn't that be a more comparable measure?

2) The issue with teacher staffing is churn. Sure, all districts are going to hire young and/or inexperienced people. The question is whether they are going to stay long enough to turn into experienced (and older) teachers. Nothing in your analysis accounts for the churn we see among less experienced teachers in NYC. I'm referring to teachers who don't stay in profession (and certainly not the district) for very long -- perhaps not even making it through a single year. I don't have the research handy, but I believe that this is a problem that is far worse in urban districts than suburban districts.

3) Why are you comparing median teachers? I'm not saying it's the wrong choice, but you've not explained why it is the right choice.

4) If the median suburban teacher has more experience, doesn't that explain a large part of why they make more money? What if the median teacher has more education? And what does this have to do with teachers leaving the city for the 'burbs? Couldn't you just compare salary schedules to see if the 'burbs pay better?

5) Why switch to "the rest of the state"? Doesn't that shift your question? Why should we think that the real rest of the state (i.e. not NYC or surrounding suburbs) is a good piece of data? What if upstate schools -- with their MUCH more spread out populations -- have much smaller classes? What if the other among the Big Five districts operate differently than the NYC suburbs?

6) Why are you limiting this to NYC? Do you really think that this is an NYC thing? What about Boston? DC? Chicago? Dallas? Seattle? Is this an NYC issue? Or is it a urban-suburban thing?

I can't see a how you think you are testing your hypothesis here. I understand your hypothesis -- the question is there in your post's title. But I don't see the kinds of thoughtfulness that turns musings into reasoning and turns data into evidence.

If this is true, what would we see? If it were not true, then what would we see? How do you figure out whether this is a more likely answer than the best available alternative?

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Ceolaf, I apparently didn't make clear enough that was in no way, shape, or form a comprehensive research study. I was just reporting on some basic statistics I stumbled upon on the NY state DOE website. I linked to all the pages so that you can see the stats for yourself. I tried to make clear that the statistics leave much to be desired and provide only a glimpse into the problem.

1.) Yes, I mentioned in the post that at least some of this was likely due to the smaller districts in the suburbs.

2.) Yes, churn is a major issue. There were no statistics on the website regarding churn, but we can infer from the fact that teachers with 4 years of experience in NYC are more experienced than 25% of their colleagues that there is fairly high churn.

3.) I'm using median teachers b/c that's the way it's reported on the website -- I can't compute a mean from the data.

4.) Yes, more experience explains some of the difference -- but teachers with 12.25 years of experience in NYC don't make 20K more than those with 9 years of experience.

5.) As I wrote in the post, I shifted to "rest of the state" because that was the only statistic reported on the website.

6.) I'm limiting it to NYC because I was poking around on the NY state dept. of ed. website and I stumbled upon these stats.

Anonymous said...

As a teacher who started out in the suburbs and then switched to NYC, I have the following personal thoughts: Why would a teacher constantly switch from one suburban district to the next? You automatically loose any seniority you have as soon as you switch towns. My experience shows that favoritism is much higher in small, suburban districts where "knowing somebody" is more important than your professional experience. Lastly, as much as the UFT has gone to crap lately, it is still a major factor in maintaining our job rights. Many suburban school unions drool at what we have in regard to benefits. (However, things were much better prior to our current contract)

Ajlounyinjurylaw said...

Any updates on 2011 statistics?