Teachers' Work in the Context of Low-Income Schools


Teaching in Low-Income District Schools Teacher helping a student with his work

We decided to pursue the issue of school context further by studying the experiences of all teachers in low-inome schools. In 2009-2011, Megin Charner-Laird, Matthew Kraft, Monica Ng, John Papay, Stefanie Reinhorn and I conducted a study of teachers’ work in six schools serving high-poverty communities in Walker City School District, a large, urban district in Massachusetts. The sample of elementary and secondary schools we chose was diverse, varying on two dimensions:  student growth rates on the state’s annual test and teachers’ satisfaction with their work environment, as reported on the MassTeLLS survey.  We no longer focused on a particular career stage—novice or second-stage teachers—but sought to understand the instructional and organizational challenges that teachers at all experience levels faced and the practices their school adopted to deal with them. The factors we found to be especially important included teachers' roles in decisionmaking, teacher teams, and the provisions that the school made to support students and ensure a safe and orderly school environment. 

Having realized that school context substantially influenced the satisfaction, success, and retention of new and second-stage teachers, we wanted to know whether those differences would be apparent when we examined data across more school districts. 

Therefore, Matthew Kraft, John Papay and I analyzed the relationship between teachers' work environments and student performance using two large Massachusetts data sets.  The first included teachers' responses to detailed questions in an online survey about their work environment (MassTeLLs) which was administered to all the state's teachers.The second included data about student growth on the state’s annual test. We compared demographically similar schools and found that teachers whose schools received overall high marks on the TeLLS survey reported that they were more satisfied with their work and planned to stay longer than teachers in schools with low ratings.  The  factors that mattered most to them were social and organizational in nature—the principal’s leadership, working relationships with colleagues, and the culture of the school, including discipline. Importantly, we also found higher rates of academic growth by students in schools rated more favorably by teachers, suggesting that improving the school as a workplace for teachers could substantially benefit students as well.

Nicole Simon also reviewed six major studies that analyzed the  high rates of teacher turnover in low-income schools. Teachers who choose to leave high-poverty schools serving large numbers of students of color usually transfer to schools serving wealthier, whiter student populations. Although some scholars  have interpreted this to mean that teachers favor working with higher-achieving, non-minority students, Simon's analysis concluded that teachers who leave are not fleeing their students.  Rather, they are fleeing the poor working conditions that make it difficult for them to teach and for their students to learn. Again, the working conditions that teachers prize most—and those that best predict their satisfaction and retention—are social in nature, including school leadership, collegial relationships, and elements of school culture.

Teaching in Successful Low-Income Schools 

Nicole Simon, Stefanie Reinhorn and I conducted the Successful Schools Study in 2014-2015.  Having found both positive and negative practices and outcomes in our earlier study of six low-income schools in Walker City School District, we turned our attention to schools that had achieved success in serving their low-income students.  We included six elementary and middle schools, all located within the limits of Walker City.  Notably, all six schools had been commended by state officials and assigned the highest rating in the state’s accountability system.  In addition to being academically successful, they were well regarded publicly.  Three were district schools and three were state charter schools. Two of the district schools had earlier been designated "turnaround" schools by state officials and one charter school was a "restart" of a chronically underperforming district school.  Our goal was to understand, compare, and describe the practices used by these successful schools to hire, support, evaluate, and retain teachers.  We hoped to  identify models of effective practice that might inform other educators and policymakers as they worked to improve teaching and learning in low-income schools.  For this study, we interviewed 97 teachers, 17 administrators, 20 nonteaching staff, and 8 teachers-in-training. We found that for several of the human capital practices we studied—hiring, collaboration, and evaluation—the schools had developed very similar and well-defined systems for doing their work. For others, such as supports for students, curriculum, and pay, school-based systems varied.