Expert Commentary

Public employee quality in a geographic context: A study of rural teachers

2013 study from University of Kentucky, University of Kansas and Tennessee State on teacher quality in Appalachia and the challenges of improving rural education systems.

Kentucky education department
Kentucky education department

Recent research has established that the long-term dividends of having quality educators are even greater than assumed: A path-breaking study from scholars at Columbia University and Harvard University, “The Long-Term Impacts of Teachers: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood,” analyzed years of “value added” data on instructor quality. Based on a sample of more than 2.5 million students, it found benefits on a broad set of measures, including income, teen birth rates and financial decision-making.

A great deal of policy research and discussion in recent years has focused on the recruitment and retention of quality teachers in urban areas and the particular challenges facing disadvantaged minority children. But more than half of all public school districts are in rural America, and some of these areas see similar patterns of poverty.

A 2013 study published in The American Review of Public Administration, “Public Employee Quality in a Geographic Context: A Study of Rural Teachers,” analyzes two decades of data relating to rural Appalachian regions in Kentucky. The researchers — Jacob Fowles of the University of Kansas; J.S. Butler, Joshua M. Cowen and Eugenia F. Toma of the University of Kentucky; and Megan E. Streams of Tennessee State University — examine the cases of more than 20,000 teachers across 158 school districts from 1987 to 2005. The researchers look at demographic and educational attainment data on these teachers, and for a sub-sample the scholars analyze American College Testing (ACT) scores “as well as scores and passage rates on the National Teacher’s Examination (NTE) core battery exam and other certification examinations.” The study’s goal was to assess the degree to which highly credentialed teachers can be recruited and retained by less-advantaged rural districts.

The study’s findings include:

  • Teachers educated in Appalachia generally tend to stay there. However, the “strongest credentialed teachers from Appalachia — those that scored a 26 or higher on the ACT or in the top decile on the NTE Core Battery General Knowledge Exam — are more likely to obtain a first placement outside of Appalachia as compared to their lower scoring Appalachian counterparts.”
  • Teachers who at some point fail a certification exam — regardless of where they come from — are more likely to be employed in Appalachia.
  • The data show that “the odds of an otherwise average teacher that attended a college or university in Appalachia obtaining first employment in an Appalachian district of average characteristics are well over three times that of her non-Appalachian counterpart. Combined with our earlier findings that demonstrate that midcareer switches into and out of Appalachia are rare events…. This analysis suggests that region of origin has a powerful influence over location for the entire arc of a teacher’s career.”
  • Overall, the data lend “support to a [research] literature which finds that teacher labor markets are highly regionalized and segmented across states.” This suggests that mobility among teachers is limited, and it raises profound questions about how isolated school districts can ever improve the learning experience for students.
  • The findings “illustrate the potentially deleterious impact of that geographic preference through its relationship with first hire loca­tion and credentials.”

The researchers make a number of recommendations to try to overcome some of these embedded problems. They also suggest that the findings have implications for the public-sector labor force more broadly: “Just as with the teacher market, there is little reason to believe that local governments in remote, economically depressed areas of the country will be more successful in attracting highly credentialed, well-trained individuals from outside those regions. As a result, the quality of public-ser­vice workers in these areas is likely to continue to lag those of the more privileged regions.”

Tags: poverty, teacher, rural

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