13 miles: The inherent localism of teaching

Recently on this blog, Dr. Bill McDiarmid wrote about “the moral and ethical imperative” of preparing teacher-candidates such that every child in America, regardless of ZIP code, has access to a great teacher. Last summer, I wrote about the moral obligation that preparation programs have to aspiring teachers, many of whom seek to enter the profession out of a deep and abiding social commitment.

But there’s an even more basic reason for colleges of education to care about improving teacher preparation: most teaching is local.

According to one study of teachers in New York State, 85 percent of beginning teachers taught within 40 miles of where they grew up (Boyd, Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2005a). This pattern appears to hold nationwide. The median distance between the high school that a teacher attended in 10th grade and that teacher’s place of residence eight years later is just 13 miles – four times lower than the distance moved by other professionals (Reininger, 2012). For teachers who grew up in densely populated cities, the median distance is only four miles. Meanwhile, other research suggests that teacher mobility declines with experience, raising the possibility that more experienced teachers work even closer to home (Goldhaber, Grout, Holden, & Brown, 2015).

While much recent attention has been given to the mobility barriers imposed by cross-state licensure requirements, local salary scales, and pension systems, the bottom line is that most teachers choose to teach near where they grew up (Engel and Cannata, 2015). Indeed, the “draw of home” is intense for teachers. So, while mobility barriers certainly exist and deserve attention, these barriers may be more interesting to economists concerned with frictionless markets than they are to teachers themselves. Improving teacher preparation means embracing the fact that most teachers are drawn to home.

If most teaching is local, what are the implications for colleges of education?

First, today’s local K-12 students are the teacher-candidates of tomorrow. Teacher-preparation programs can be part of a virtuous cycle: by improving teacher quality today, programs help to increase local high school graduation rates, leading to more college enrollees and a more robust pipeline of future teachers, who, in turn, impact the next generation of K-12 students. From a purely financial perspective, investing in teacher preparation is good for a college’s future enrollment numbers – the lifeblood of colleges and universities.

But there is an additional reason to care about this virtuous cycle. As Vegas, Murnane, and Willett (2001) have demonstrated, the surest way to create a racially and ethnically diverse teaching force is not just to recruit college graduates of color into teaching, but also to increase high school graduation and college enrollment rates in minority communities. Local K-12 schools and universities would do well to partner together to improve teacher quality and to support promising high school and college students of color who wish to go into teaching. Educators Rising and the Golden Apple Scholars Program in Illinois are two examples of intermediary organizations that collaborate with K-12 systems and colleges of education to reinforce this cycle.

Second, aspiring teachers are often hidden in plain sight. Every community has aspiring teachers who are already working in schools, often as aides or paraprofessionals. These professionals are already committed to education, but may lack academic credentials necessary to pursue licensure. “Grow-your-own” partnerships between districts and high-quality preparation programs have potential to set these educators up for long-term success as teachers in their communities. TechTeach Across Texas is one such example of a grow-your-own partnership.

Third, schools of education should actively expose teacher-candidates to school contexts different from their own. The double edge of teachers’ hyper-localism is a tendency to teach in communities that are not only geographically proximate to their hometowns, but also racially and socioeconomically similar (Boyd, Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2005b). But, as recent research has shown, this tendency may be influenced by teacher-candidates’ experience during preparation. Indeed, a candidate’s student-teaching location appears to be more predictive of where that candidate takes his or her first teaching job than does his or her hometown (Krieg, Theobold, & Goldhaber, 2016). So, while many candidates choose to student-teach in K-12 schools similar to the ones they attended, programs can disrupt this pattern by guiding candidates to a diverse range of clinical experience settings. The University of Missouri – St. Louis aims to structure pre-service field experiences in this way.

Aspiring teachers are not anonymous consumers of preparation programs, going off to teach in schools unknown. At local and regional programs throughout the country, most teacher-candidates are of the community or region where a program is located and plan to spend their careers in that area.

In order to improve educator preparation at scale, we should recognize and embrace the fact that most teaching is local.


Boyd, D., Lankford, H., Loeb, S., & Wyckoff, J. (2005a). The draw of home: How teacher’s preference for proximity disadvantage urban schools. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 24(1), 113-132.

Boyd, D., Lankford, H., Loeb, S., & Wyckoff, J. (2005b). Explaining the short careers of high-achieving teachers in schools with low-performing students. American Economic Review, 95(2), 166-171.

Engel, M., & Cannata, M. (2015). Localism and teacher labor markets: How geography and decision making may contribute to inequality. Peabody Journal of Education, 90(1), 84-92.

Goldhaber, D., Grout, C., Holden, K.L., & Brown, N. (2015). Crossing the border? Exploring the cross-state mobility of the teacher workforce. Educational Researcher, 44(8), 421-431.

Krieg, J., Theobald, R., & Goldhaber, D. (2016). A foot in the door: exploring the role of student teaching assignments in teachers’ initial job placements. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 38(2), 364-388.

Reininger, M. (2012). Hometown disadvantage? It depends on where you’re from: teachers’ location preferences and the implications for staffing schools. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 34(2), 127-145.

Vegas, E., Murnane, R.J., & Willett, J.B. (2001). From high school to teaching: Many steps. Who makes it? Teachers College Record, 103(3), 427-449.

Peter Fishman

Executive Vice President

All Blog Posts
Subscribe to Our Newsletter