Does Your First School Shape the Teacher You Become?

There are two ways to learn how to swim. You either get decked out in your best pair of water wings and slowly figure things out, or your brother pushes you in the pool and you thrash around until you float.

Ok, so there are probably more than two ways, but the point is that there still isn’t much consensus on whether or not “trial by fire” is a good thing. One area where this debate is particularly relevant is teacher training. Is it better for a teacher to learn in a “good” school where they have the luxury of resources and higher-achieving students, or are they better off starting in a “bad” school were they must learn to deal with the worst our education system has to offer?

new study by the University of Michigan’s Matthew Ronfeldt sheds some light on this issue. Ronfeldt examined the careers of teachers who did their pre-service preparation in “easy-to-staff” schools (where teachers tend to stay longer) and “hard-to-staff” schools. The results showed that for teachers, trial by fire is probably not the way to go.

Teachers who learned to teach in higher stay-ratio (easier-to-staff) field placement schools were more effective at raising test scores and more likely to stay in NYC schools during their first 5 years of teaching. Moreover, learning to teach in easier-to-staff schools was associated with better retention and achievement gains even for teachers who became teachers of record in the hardest-to-staff (lowest stay-ratio) schools and for those who ended up working with the most underserved student populations.


The main findings suggest teacher education programs should avoid placing prospective teachers in difficult-to-staff schools.

The methodology doesn’t rule out selection or peer affects that could lead to a different group of teachers starting at easy-to-staff schools, and it’s also worth noting that if a school is hard-to-staff it doesn’t necessarily mean it serves an underserved population (i.e. poor minority students). Nevertheless, the results are telling. Do they mean that Teach For America should start sending people to fancy schools in the suburbs? Of course not. But if you personally are dedicated to becoming the best teacher possible, it might be better for you to start off in an “easy-to-staff” school.

In my mind, the study also speaks to the larger issues regarding how much freedom various entities should have when it comes to running schools. For example, imagine that the findings from this study are repeatedly replicated so that the benefits of starting out in an easy-to-staff school become clear. Now imagine an entity (e.g. a school district, CMO, etc.) that runs a variety of different schools over a relatively large geographic region. Such an entity could place all of its new teachers in easy-to-staff schools, then after two or three years, offer them financial incentives to move to difficult-to-staff schools. This maximizes professional development and puts the best teachers in the schools that need them most.

Unfortunately, at the moment the above utility-maximizing scenario is impossible in most U.S. public school systems. School districts don’t offer financial incentives to teach in one school over another, and they can’t send all new teachers to a certain selection of schools. All of this is very hypothetical, but it illustrates why some people are so infuriated with the rigidness of public education in America.
Ronfeldt, M. (2012). Where Should Student Teachers Learn to Teach?: Effects of Field Placement School Characteristics on Teacher Retention and Effectiveness Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 34 (1), 3-26 DOI: 10.3102/0162373711420865

2 Responses to Does Your First School Shape the Teacher You Become?

  1. Jim Birch says:

    “This is all very hypothetical, but it explains why some people are so infuriated with the the rigidness of public education in America.”

    Yeah, but.. aren’t 90% of the people who are infuriated with school systems (etc) driven by mythologies rather than empirical evidence?

    • erichorowitz says:

      I think one could just as easily argue that 90% of people who more or less support the status quo are driven by mythologies. Personally, I think both sides of the ed reform debate essentially just try to pound their fists louder than the other side instead of engaging in in well-reasoned realistic argument. I plan to write a post about it…soon.

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