With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:
Huriya Jabbar is an assistant professor of educational policy and planning at the University of Texas at Austin's College of Education. She was selected as a 2016 National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow, awarding her $70,000 to research how teachers find and choose jobs in cities with large numbers of charter schools.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Edu: Can you share some information about the research you plan to conduct using this fellowship award?
Huriya Jabbar: Just to give you some context, most of my research has been focused on school choice, and most recently the work I've been doing is in New Orleans. But while I was studying school choice and competition there for students, I kept hearing from principals that there was also this fierce competition for teachers. So this project is really going to expand the New Orleans case, so I'll be looking at New Orleans, Detroit and San Antonio – all cities that have very high charter school market density, in that there is a large share of students attending charter schools.
What I'm focusing on there is the teacher labor markets, so how school choice changes not just the experience of schooling for students and parents but also for teachers who now have multiple schools to choose from. When they're applying for a job, they can work in a charter school, traditional public school and any number of different institutions.
Trib+Edu: You said these cities have certain shares of students in charter schools, but why these cities in particular as opposed to others? Charter schools are not unique to these three cities, so what did you look at when choosing them?
Jabbar: The reason I chose New Orleans initially is because it has the highest charter density in the country. Ninety percent of students there attend charter schools, so there's no city that's even close. The cities that come second are Detroit and Washington, D.C.
Both of those have about 50 percent of students attending charter schools. I thought Detroit might be a nice case in comparison to New Orleans because both of those cities have struggled for many decades with governance issues, with low funding. I saw a lot of similarities between those two sites.
And then San Antonio, I've always wanted to do more research in Texas and there were several other cities, not that many, but two other cities that had 25 to 30 percent charter school market share, which is what San Antonio has. But I thought I would focus closer to home and the San Antonio context is very understudied.
Trib+Edu: Is there a lot of research focused on how teachers, as opposed to students, are affected by school choice?
Jabbar: There's not that much, definitely in comparison to the huge amount of work that has been growing in the last couple of decades now about how charter schools affect students and how parents make decisions about schools, et cetera. There's been comparatively less research on school local actors. So my dissertation really focused on the principals and how they were responding to choice and competition.
So now I'm drilling into the teacher level. There has been some work that looks at the characteristics of teachers in charter schools and traditional public schools. There have been some preliminary studies looking at things like teacher compensation in those different contexts, teacher turnover in those different contexts.
But we really don't understand, which is the focus of my research, how teachers find those jobs in settings where there isn't a central office anymore. There is no one place that you submit applications. How are you getting information about positions? Where are they choosing to apply? And what does that recruitment and interview process look like?
Trib+Edu: I know you haven't started the research yet, but can you elaborate on why the number of charter schools might affect this process of finding and selecting jobs?
Jabbar: So why it might affect it is what I can tell you for now. The reason that we think the teacher market looks different in this context is for a number of reasons.
So first, as I mentioned, there's no longer a central office that teachers submit their applications to. So if they want to work in San Antonio ISD, they can still submit an application to the district. However, within San Antonio, there are all of these charter networks that have their own systems, so you could apply directly to IDEA, for example, or Harmony.
So it gives teachers these multiple options of organizations to apply to. And in some cases, I think, it could also be confusing. There might be a standalone charter school that is hiring, and they might not know about it. The first question is, where are teachers even getting information about these jobs, and then why are they choosing these different institutions?
The other thing that changes in an environment with school choice is that charter schools are free from a lot of the restrictions that traditional public schools are subject to. So they can experiment with things like pay, salary, benefits, recruitment incentives for teachers, things that we haven't been able to observe before because there was kind of a a typical salary schedule or salary structure. So we can really understand what is it about these schools that teachers are drawn to. Is it performance pay? Is it the admission of the school? That kind of thing.
Trib+Edu: Are you expecting the findings to differ city by city, not necessarily because of the percentage of students in charter schools, but just based on the structures for education in these separate cities?
Jabbar: Yes, and that's one of the things I'm curious about exploring. One of my most recent papers was looking at the role of two different governing agencies in New Orleans, traditional public school districts and the state. And they have different rules for schools and different rules for the charter schools that they authorize and oversee. I think those structures and regulation really shape what happens on the ground, so I'm curious in these different contexts if I start to dig into them more. How are the particular policies around teacher hiring shaping what's going on?
So, for example, in Louisiana you don't have to have a teaching credential to work in a charter school, and there's a statewide value added program for teachers. How does that context look different than in Detroit where teachers are currently on strike and have teachers unions? So there are very different contexts that I think are obviously going to shape what's happening.
Trib+Edu: Can you discuss this idea of teachers and their social networks also playing a role when it comes to voluntary changes, and what role you expect that idea to play in this research?
Jabbar: That's a great question. I was surprised by how little research in education has explored the role of networks in the job search process.
So we know in sociology there's a huge body of literature that's decades old now that has explored how informal networks help people find jobs, you know, help them find their initial job and then help them in their career growth and mobility. There's been hardly any research in education looking at the role of social network in teacher or leader job search processes, so I'm really hoping to bring some of those theories from sociology to help understand why teachers make the decisions they do.
Trib+Edu: You mentioned earlier that you have done previous research on school choice, can you tell me about some of your other findings?
Jabbar: Yeah, sure, so the overarching question in New Orleans was really — given that school choice allows parents to choose from multiple schools and they can leave a school at any point — how does that pressure to attract and retain students affect school leader's actions.
The theory is that, of course, competition puts healthy pressure on school leaders to improve their academic services or programs or extracurricular activities to attract and retain these families. And what I found through mostly qualitative interviews and surveys of the principals in New Orleans is that, by and large, their biggest effort was focusing on marketing, so that was a common response. Which, you know, marketing provides information to parents, but it's obviously a more superficial strategy, it's not really changing the core of the school.
I found that some schools did focus on academics. About a third of the schools did, you know, improving test scores, adding what they call innovative curricular programs to attract parents, which is kind of a step we want them to be doing.
One of the concerning findings was that a third of the schools also engaged in some kind of collection strategy. Even though these were supposed to be open enrollment schools ... there were schools that were finding ways to work around that system to manage their enrollments.
So that could be things like not advertising open spaces to avoid getting students mid-year who might have been out of school for a few months or who have moved around from school to school and has behavioral issues, et cetera. The main finding is that schools, because of this accountability pressure and pressure to increase test scores in light of charter school renewal, there was a perverse incentive to screen out particular students who might hurt their chances of that renewal.