Hiring Quality Teachers: Insights from New Research

Alison Heape JohnsonThe CACE RoundtableLeave a Comment

Teacher and three students.

Sixteen thousand hours—that is approximately the amount of time a child spends with their teachers from kindergarten to high school graduation. Most of us know from experience the power of a good teacher. Research has repeatedly shown that the school-level factor that explains the most variation in students’ academic outcomes is a student’s teacher.

For this reason, in the world of research on public schools, teacher quality and hiring are widely studied topics. Yet there is almost no research on teacher quality in Christian schools, nor on the related topic of how Christian school leaders identify and hire quality teachers.

This research gap is surprising. In Christian schools, not only is a teacher an agent of academic formation, but they are an important source of discipleship for students whose parents are raising them in the Christian faith. If teacher quality matters, it especially matters in Christian schools.

The Study

Dr. Matthew Lee, Dr. Albert Cheng, and I set out to study teacher hiring in Christian schools. (Our research has been recently published open-access in the Journal of Religious Education). We used school leader survey data from the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI)—data using a sampling of 189 school leaders in Cambodia, Nigeria, the Philippines, the United Republic of Tanzania, and the United States, scanning a large portion of the Christian school sector.

Four different times, the ACSI survey asked school leaders to choose which teacher they would hire from a slate of three fictitious candidates, randomly varying across four characteristics: the high school the candidate graduated from (either the school leader’s school or a different school); the postsecondary institution they graduated from (either a Christian or secular college/university); their academic achievement and qualifications (below-average, modest, or strong); and their teaching/leadership experience (limited or extensive).

Political scientists sometimes use this kind of survey model (called a “conjoint experiment”) to study how much voters value a trait of a political candidate, independent of all the candidate’s other traits. In our case, a conjoint design allowed us to identify to what degree Christian school leaders in our sample, on average, value each teacher trait, independent of the others.


Our survey results are shown in the figures below. Each bar represents a prospective teacher’s likelihood of being hired by the school leaders taking our survey based on that characteristic alone.

While teachers with below-average academic achievement and qualifications have only a 11% chance of being hired, those with modest academics have a 36% chance of being hired, and those with strong academics have a 53% chance of being hired (see Figure 1). It seems that Christian school leaders care strongly about the personal academic ability of their teachers.

Figure 1: Effect of Academic Achievement and Qualifications on the Likelihood of Being Hired

School leaders exhibited less of a preference for whether a prospective teacher was a graduate of their school (the “homegrown” effect) versus another high school, with a 40% likelihood of hiring one of their own graduates compared to a 27% likelihood of hiring someone else (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Effect of High School Graduated From on the Likelihood of Being Hired

Christian school leaders in our sample show a stronger preference for the prospective teacher having graduated from a Christian college or university (44% chance of being hired) compared to a secular one (22% chance of being hired) (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Effect of College/University Graduated From on the Likelihood of Being Hired

Finally, school leaders strongly prefer to hire teachers with extensive teaching/leadership experience (46% chance of being hired) compared to limited experience (21% chance of being hired) (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: Effect of Teaching/Leadership Experience on the Likelihood of Being Hired

Applications for Practitioners

Christian school leaders in our sample seem to prefer more experienced teachers with strong academic credentials from a Christian institution of higher education (although our data does not speak to the joint importance of these three teacher characteristics). While our data does not indicate why school leaders prefer Christian postsecondary education, Dr. Rian Djita, Dr. Lynn Swaner, and I found qualitative evidence that may shed light on why some school leaders hold this preference in our study interviewing school leaders about their teacher hiring practices.

First, because Christian higher education may provide many more opportunities for spiritually sharpening relationships and experiences compared to secular higher education, a Christian postsecondary degree may be considered evidence that a teacher is better equipped to integrate well into the Christian community of a Christian school. Second, being taught to teach and being taught to teach from a Biblical worldview may be two very different experiences; graduates of Christian colleges and universities might be considered more equipped to disciple students and teach them academic content through a Biblical lens. Student spiritual formation is one of the most important functions of a Christian school; a graduate of a Christian college or university may appear on paper to be better prepared for this task.

“Christian schools should focus on providing training and support systems for teacher candidates with teaching promise . . . this support is an investment that will likely pay off in a few years.”

Interestingly, research seems to show that a teacher’s academic effectiveness improves with experience only in the first few years, suggesting that hiring teachers with limited experience (depending on the definition of “limited”) may not be very different compared to hiring teachers with extensive experience. While recent college graduates may need extra support, this support is an investment that will likely pay off in a few years.

Furthermore, Christian leaders may want to note that spiritual formation of teacher candidates happens through avenues outside Christian institutions of higher education. Research I conducted with Dr. Matthew Lee showed that even for those who attended a Christian college, ACSI teachers reported that their local church was a significant part of their spiritual formation during their higher education, tied with campus activities and ministries. One need not have a Christian college degree to be spiritually mature or well-integrated into a Christian community.

To widen the teacher pipeline without sacrificing quality, Christian schools should focus on providing training and support systems for teacher candidates with teaching promise (including recent college graduates or teachers with only secular teaching experience) and mature relationships with Jesus Christ, rather than looking solely for candidates who graduated from a Christian college and have extensive teaching experience. This wider reach may involve partnering with other Christian schools, Christian accrediting organizations, or Christian institutions of higher education that can offer additional support for teachers who need a boost in specific areas of Christian pedagogy.


  • Alison Heape Johnson

    Alison Heape Johnson is a research fellow for the Association of Christian Schools International. Her research focuses on teacher and administrator pipelines and teacher quality in Christian education. Previously, she taught in public and Christian schools.

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