Classrooms without teachers

In many large school districts, hundreds of teaching positions were unfilled as school year began

How many classrooms in America’s largest school districts are missing a teacher when the school year starts?

A small but significant number, according to new data obtained from those districts, though it varies widely. In Los Angeles and Houston, virtually all teaching jobs were filled. But in Chicago, nearly 6 percent of teaching jobs were vacant.

Districts used their own definitions for a “vacant” position, meaning the numbers may not be directly comparable. Still, they highlight how several big districts, by their own admission, are not able to fill teaching jobs by the time school starts. Research and experience suggests that students stand to suffer, particularly those in already struggling schools.

Districts with vacant teaching positions have less-than-ideal options. They can use short- or long-term substitutes; raise class sizes; or leave non-classroom positions like reading specialists unfilled.

Researchers and advocates say the problem can be addressed through a combination of short-term policies — like improving hiring policies that make it difficult to get into the classroom quickly — and long-term reforms, such as improving pay and working conditions to make teaching a more attractive job.

Matt Kraft, a Brown University professor who has studied how students are affected when their teacher who is hired late, summed it up: “It’s bad for kids,” he said.

In Chicago, budget questions lead to empty jobs

Chalkbeat requested the number of vacant or unfilled teaching positions at the beginning of the school year from the 15 largest school districts in the country, as well as how many teachers were employed. Their answers varied widely.

In Chicago, which was recently lauded as the urban district where students make the fastest improvements, there were nearly 1,300 teacher vacancies. As the district serves almost 400,000 students, this suggests that tens of thousands of students were affected.

A spokesperson for Chicago Public Schools said funding issues that left principals unsure of how much money they would have to hire teachers were at the root of the high vacancy rate.

“Last summer’s budgeting process was marked by an unprecedented level of uncertainty due to the state’s delay in funding education,” Emily Bolton said in a statement. School budgets would be released early this year, she said, giving principals more time to plan.

She said that if citywide social work and nursing positions — which are officially classified as teaching positions — were excluded, the vacancy rate would fall to 4.5 percent. Bolton also provided data showing that the number of open positions had been cut in half by the beginning of December.

Hawaii, which has one statewide district, reported 470 teaching vacancies to start the year.

“Filling teacher vacancies is one of the greatest challenges, as Hawaii shares the national trends of increasing teacher shortages and fewer numbers of individuals entering the profession,” said Donalyn Dela Cruz, a spokesperson for the Hawaii Department of Education.


Teacher vacancies in largest 15 school districts, 2017–18

District Teachers employed at start of school year Vacancies at start of school year Vacancy rate
New York City 77,000 900 1.16%
Los Angeles 24,166 12 0.05%
Chicago 20,413 1294 5.96%
Miami-Dade County (Florida) 20,005 147 0.73%
Clark County (Nevada) 18,541 413 2.18%
Fairfax County (Virginia) 15,526 97 0.62%
Hillsborough County (Florida) 15,401 258 1.65%
Broward County (Florida) 14,892 184 1.22%
Orange County (Florida) 13,650 79 0.58%
Hawaii 12,850 470 3.53%
Palm Beach County (Florida) 12,820 136 1.05%
Gwinnett County (Georgia) 12,150 0 0.00%
Houston 11,975 13 0.11%
Dallas 10,207 129 1.25%
Philadelphia 8,771 98 1.10%

Source: Public records requests from school districts. In the case of New York City, information came from a district spokesperson.

Vacancy rates may not be comparable.


Mireille Ellsworth, a high school teacher in Hawaii for over a decade, says she sees positions sit empty every year. It has a significant impact, especially when the vacant teachers would otherwise be assisting her students with disabilities.

“When I start the school year with a teacher that is not a [special education] teacher — just a substitute — that is really difficult,” she said. “They’re supposed to be helping with … adapting the lessons and the curriculum to the students’ unique needs.”

Including Chicago and Hawaii, nine of the 15 surveyed districts reported a vacancy rate of over 1 percent.

Should the numbers be a major concern for policymakers? On one hand, all 15 of districts reported that the vast majority of their teaching positions were filled. But in large districts, having even a small share of positions vacant means a substantial number of students going without a dedicated teacher.

“This is one where percentages are less important than the absolute number,” Dan Weisberg, the head of TNTP, a consulting group that has worked with districts to overhaul their hiring practices. “Getting close is not good enough — you need to fill every one of those vacancies.”

Some districts report doing so. Los Angeles, a district about the size of Chicago, said there were only 12 open positions at the start of the year. A district spokesperson credited recruitment practices, partnerships with local teacher preparation programs, and a program to award early contracts to certain candidates in hard-to-staff schools. The district has also touted its retention rate among novice teachers: 94 percent in the 2015–16 school year.

Kraft, the Brown professor, warned that the true number of vacancies may be higher than districts report, as some may manipulate definitions of “vacant” or have principals who attempt to hide vacancies to avoid having a teacher placed in their school.

“I think you can take [these numbers] as a lower bound,” Kraft said.

How it plays out inside classrooms

Classrooms without full-time assigned teachers aren’t just a logistical problem for schools. Those vacancies also mean students learn less.

That’s according to peer-reviewed research from Kraft, along with Brown’s John Papay. They found that students taught by late-hire teachers had slightly lower math and reading scores on year-end exams.

The study suggests that the harmful effects come not just because students get off to a slow start when a teacher is hired late, but because late-hired teachers are less effective than others. This highlights a potential hidden cost to schools that hire late: top teachers have already been snapped up.

Poor students, students of color, and students who attend struggling schools are more likely to bear those costs.

An analysis by the Chicago Teachers Union found that vacancies in the city were concentrated on schools on the south and west side, which serve more students of color and those in poverty. And Kraft’s research on an anonymous urban district in the South found that schools with more vacancies tended to serve more low-income students. “In some ways, your averages mask the real story,” he said.

Meanwhile, Kraft points to some ways to avoid late hiring: creating a streamlined hiring process, ensuring principals realize the detrimental effects of late hiring, and setting school budgets as early as possible.

Those budget timelines can be critical, because some districts have had to issue layoff notices only to scramble to rehire teachers later. Research shows that this causes teachers to leave their schools, even if their positions are not ultimately eliminated.

Sarah Rothschild, an analyst for the Chicago Teacher Union, said this has been a problem.  Pointing to budget issues, Chicago Public Schools regularly lays off teachers in the summer and then rehires for the same position months later, “at which point those people left for the suburbs or other jobs,” Rothschild said.

Offering bonuses for hard-to-staff positions, like those in special education and in high-poverty schools, could also help. Recent research has found that this approach is an effective way to retain teachers, and fewer teachers leaving means the district needs to make fewer hires.

More fundamentally, improving teacher salaries and working conditions is likely to attract new teachers and get others to stay. “That’s a big, long-term solution — not a quick fix,” said Kraft.

Corey Rosenlee, the head of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, emphasized pay, arguing that the state needs to spend more on schools.

“It’s not going to encourage people to go into the profession if they feel they can’t make a living off of it,” he said.

discipline paradox

Do charter schools suspend students more? It depends on how you look at the data.

PHOTO: Chris Hondros/Getty Images
A student reads on a dotted carpet where students often sit for class at Harlem Success Academy.

A few weeks ago, a government watchdog agency released an extensive report on discipline in U.S. schools. It drew headlines for underscoring how black students, boys, and students with disabilities are much more likely to be suspended.

But there was one question that the report helped answer that didn’t get much attention: are charter schools more or less likely to suspend their students?

It’s a fraught topic, particularly as so-called “no-excuses” charter schools across the country have been criticized for what some see as overly harsh discipline. And the answer turns out to be complicated.

Here’s the latest national snapshot, which comes from 2013-14 data. Overall, charter schools have a somewhat higher out-of-school suspension rate — meaning the percent of students who were suspended at least once — than traditional public schools. But when you break down suspensions by students’ race, charters actually post slightly lower rates in each major group.

Source: GAO analysis of Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection Graphic: Sam Park

How can that be? It happens because charters and traditional public schools don’t have the same share of students in each student group. Charters serve a greater share of black students, for one, and those students are much more likely to be suspended than other groups in both sectors. (Statistics teachers, you can use this as a real-world example of what’s known as Simpson’s paradox.)

These findings highlight how complicated it is to fairly compare suspension rates across schools, and suggest that charter schools may have have similar — even lower — suspension rates than traditional schools, depending on how the data is sliced.

At the same time, some of the most-praised charters, particularly those in the “no-excuses” camp, really have been shown to post high suspension rates, even accounting for differences in student populations.

A 2013 study showed that attending a Boston charter school, often lauded for high test scores, substantially increased the amount of time students were suspended.

And to be clear, the GAO data show that black students at charter schools — and all kinds of schools in the report — still get suspended at a far higher rate than other charter students. Moreover, the report shows that charter schools are more likely to suspend students with disabilities than traditional public schools (12.9 percent vs. 11.6 percent).

Charters reported lower overall rates of in-school suspensions, referrals to law enforcement, expulsions, corporal punishment, and school-related arrests than traditional public schools.

All of this data describes what is happening, but it doesn’t explain why. And the report doesn’t look at other characteristics — like students’ motivation or academic performance — that may be related to their likelihood of being suspended.

Keep in mind that although the data that GAO relies on, the 2013–14 Civil Rights Data Collection out of the U.S. Department of Education, is widely cited, it has important limitations. In particular, some have found evidence in past data collections that schools, including charters, misreported discipline rates.

(The author of the GAO report noted in an email that the department had made efforts to catch data problems by flagging large districts that report zero suspensions. But since charters are usually relatively small, these checks may be less likely to catch errors among charter schools.)

Charter schools are also more likely to deliver instruction entirely through virtual programs, and those cyber charters may be unlikely to suspend students. A more appropriate comparison might be be between brick-and-mortar charters and brick-and-mortar traditional schools, but the data isn’t broken down that way.

This data is notable, in other words, but should be interpreted with caution.

Homework

The Detroit district’s first homework policy is in the works. See how much homework it recommends your child do every night.

Detroit students who are drowning in homework — or unable to complete it because of challenges at home — could soon find relief in a new policy.

The Detroit district on Tuesday proposed putting a cap on the amount of time students in different grade levels spend on homework. Kindergartners would be limited to 10 minutes of homework, while high school juniors and seniors would see their homework load capped at three hours total, across all subjects.

The proposed policy, which a school board subcommittee is now considering, would also prohibit schools from penalizing students who can’t do homework assignments in the allotted time. It would also prohibit teachers from assigning grades on homework assignments and limit how much they can count whether students completed homework to just 10 percent of their final grades.

The policy, which is the new district’s first attempt at a formal homework policy, may address educators’ concerns that a student’s ability to complete homework reflects how much or how little support she receives at home, not her academic abilities. Indeed, some research has suggested that homework can widen performance gaps between students from affluent and low-income families. Research has also found little benefit to homework for young students and diminishing returns for older students after a certain amount of time.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he expects the policy to be welcomed by local families and educators.

“This will be a shift,” he said. “I think for parents this will be well received and for teachers it will be well received.”

But questions are already emerging about how the policy would be implemented — and whether it should be.

“I think that it’s awesome,” board member and former teacher, principal, and superintendent Deborah Hunter-Harvill said. “But is it realistic? I doubt it.”

Because a maximum number of minutes of homework time per night is for all subjects, board member Misha Stallworth questioned whether teachers would need to use more time to coordinate assignments with their colleagues, taking away from their own lesson planning.

District officials are still trying to figure out how to implement and enforce the new time limits, Vitti said.

They might discover that involved parents could be an obstacle. Dana Dacres, a parent of five children attending Burton International Academy, said she spends close to half an hour on homework every night with her kindergartner alone — time that she said is valuable.

“I can see the idea — they don’t want the kids coming home after spending six, seven, or eight hours in the classroom and then having to ‘take your work home with you,’” she said, “but the reality is that some kids need a little bit extra.”

Dacres said she does like that the policy might force students to work more efficiently.

“The idea is to get the work done within the allotted amount of time,” she said. “I like the idea of students becoming good time managers.”

The policies are heard first at the public subcommittee meeting where members can suggest changes. They are then read at a public school board meeting before being voted upon by the full board.

Find the maximum number of minutes of homework per grade below.