public opinion

Poll: Voters don't trust city's teacher ratings but do back release

New York City voters by and large do not trust the teacher ratings released late last month. But most wouldn’t mind if future assessments of teachers’ quality were also made public, according to a poll whose results were released this morning.

The poll, conducted by Quinnipiac University last week, asked 964 New Yorkers about teacher evaluations both in theory and in practice. It found that just 20 percent of voters said they trusted the city’s “recently released teacher evaluations” known as Teacher Data Reports, and nearly half said the results were flawed. (The ratings, which had massive margins of error, were not actually used to evaluate teachers.) But 58 percent said they approved in theory of releasing the results of teacher evaluations to the public.

The poll’s findings suggest voters simply haven’t made up their minds about the role that teacher evaluations should play even as battles over new evaluations have dominated the headlines in recent months.

Just a third of poll respondents said they thought teachers who score low on evaluations should be fired, a use that advocates of new evaluations have championed. But 54 percent said they thought top-rated teachers should be rewarded with additional pay, something Mayor Bloomberg has suggested and the UFT has opposed. And 84 percent said they thought performance should trump seniority if the city needed to lay off teachers, a policy position that Bloomberg made his priority last spring, to no avail.

The poll contained soothing news for politicians worrying how to navigate the rocky terrain of public opinion on teacher evaluations: Sixty percent of respondents said whether a candidate supports the release of teacher ratings would not affect their vote.

Plus, the ratings’ release did not exact a toll on New Yorkers’ opinion of Chancellor Dennis Walcott or Mayor Bloomberg’s handling of the city public schools. Voters’ approval of Walcott, who publicly warned that the ratings were out of date and unreliable, actually rose significantly since February, to 43 percent, the highest since his tenure began a year ago.

Bloomberg, who defended the teacher ratings’ release even when Walcott was more circumspect, also saw a slight uptick in his approval rating on education. The poll found that 32 percent of New Yorkers approve of how Bloomberg is handling the schools, up slightly since February and relatively steady over the long term.

The proportion of New Yorkers who say they have a favorable opinion of city teachers also held steady, at about 50 percent, as did the portion who said the teachers union is playing a positive role in improving schools. (The poll of 964 registered voters, conducted March 6-11, had a margin of error of 3.2 percent.)

Both city and union officials found data points to support their positions in today’s poll results.

A spokeswoman for the city, Lauren Passalacqua, pointed to Walcott’s surging approval rating and noted that “even 74 percent of union households agree that teachers should be considered based on performance and not seniority.”

UFT President Michael Mulgrew, on the other hand, issued a statement targeting the low public approval for the Teacher Data Reports. “If I were Mayor Bloomberg, I’d be asking myself why only one in five voters trusts the information my administration just released on thousands of teachers,” he said.

teacher trap

America’s teachers don’t move out of state much. That could be bad for students.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

Certification rules can make moving to a new state a serious hassle for teachers.

That might explain a recent finding: Teachers are significantly less likely to move between states than others with similar jobs — and past research suggests that students suffer as a result.

The study, which uses national data from 2005 to 2015 and was released this week through the National Bureau of Economic Research, appears to be the first to document how frequently teachers move states compared to those in other occupations.

Teaching stands out: Relative to jobs requiring a similar level of education, teachers were 45 percent less likely to move to different state, but only 5 percent less likely to move a long distance within a given state. This suggests that teachers aren’t averse to moving — there are just strong incentives to not cross state lines.

That “may limit the ability of workers to move to take advantage of job opportunities,” the researchers write. That’s consistent with research on the Oregon–Washington border, where teachers were more likely to move long distances in their own state than shorter distances across the state line.

Winning permission to teach in a new state sometimes requires re-taking coursework and taking new certification exams. There may be good reasons for that — for instance, states that are particularly attractive to teachers may want to maintain especially high standards but it’s also a complicated process to navigate.

“Web-surfing became my life, through hard-to-navigate state department of education websites and portals that looked like something I had created back in my college sophomore computer science class in 1998,” wrote one teacher in a recent piece for Education Week, describing her efforts to meet new requirements after moving from Florida to Massachusetts.

This matters because the rules may keep teachers who move from re-entering the classroom altogether. A national survey found that among people who had left teaching but were considering re-entering the classroom, 40 percent identified “state certification reciprocity” as a key factor in their consideration.

That, in turn, affects students. One analysis has found that schools near state borders perform consistently worse on standardized tests — perhaps because certification and other rules limit the pool of potential teachers. Research has also shown that teachers perform best when they find a good “fit” with a school, and certification rules may make that harder.

Certification rules are not the only factor in play. Teachers’ decisions may also be influenced by retirement plans that aren’t easily portable and rules that would require them to give up seniority and tenure protections when they move.

It doesn’t have to work this way. The study finds that people in other professions, like medicine, are freer to move and have certifications that easily transfer between states. But the idea of a national “bar exam” for educators hasn’t ever gained traction.

A handful of states have agreed to accept one another’s certifications, and a provision in ESSA would allow federal money to go toward the efforts.

As for the teacher, Megan Allen, who struggled with Massachusetts’ rules — and had 10 years of experience and a National Board certification? She left public education as a result. “I didn’t feel like I was valued for any of the expertise that I had earned, worked hard for, and proved,” she wrote.

war on teachers?

When union protections disappear, poor schools lose teachers, new research finds

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Kindergarten teacher Stefanie Kovaleski speaks with a student at Detroit's Bethune Elementary-Middle School.

Is a “war on teachers” driving them out of the classroom?

In many states, teachers and their unions have made that case, noting that it’s become tougher to earn tenure, bargaining rights have been diminished, and more of their evaluations are based on test scores.

A new study tries to find out whether the two — recent policy changes and teacher turnover — are really linked. Its findings make it the latest in a handful of recent studies to suggest that the weakening of teachers unions and job protections hits already-struggling schools the hardest.

Focusing on Michigan, the researchers find that a spate of teacher-focused policy changes passed in 2011 and 2012 did not cause an overall increase in teacher turnover. But at schools with lower test scores or more students in poverty, teacher churn jumped.

This, the researchers say, raises an important concern: “That teacher labor market reforms like those implemented in Michigan may disproportionately impact the poorest schools and school districts — those already facing staffing constraints.”

How that turnover affects students is not always clear. In general, teacher turnover has been linked to worse student outcomes, but it can be beneficial if new teachers are better than the ones they replaced. In this case, the researchers don’t know whether teachers left voluntarily or involuntarily, or how effective those teachers were.

The paper, released through Michigan State’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, examines a series of laws passed in that state in 2011 and 2012. Those laws introduced a new teacher evaluation linked to student test scores, lengthened the time before a teacher could attain tenure, prohibited districts from prioritizing teacher seniority when making layoff decisions, and instituted “right-to-work” provisions that blocked districts from requiring teachers to join unions.

In the years after the laws were passed, teacher turnover spiked. But the researchers say this doesn’t show the impact of the laws, since other factors — like the recession and its after-effects — may have driven those changes.

So to isolate cause and effect, the researchers compared districts where the new laws went into place right away to those that didn’t see changes for a few years. (Some districts had union contracts that were allowed to be maintained until they expired.)

Teacher turnover looked similar in both groups of districts, indicating that the policy changes weren’t what made the difference. Turnover rates for teachers also mirrored those for other school professionals, like counselors, social workers, and psychologists, who researchers assume were less affected by the changes.

“This suggests that the reforms labeled part of a ‘war on teachers’ may not depress teacher morale to the point where they result in a large loss (at least in the short run) of teachers from the profession,” the study says.

(One complicating factor: If everyone in schools, not just teachers, felt like there was a broad-based “war on schools” — and that was true in all districts — this study would not capture the laws’ true influence.)

But the researchers find something different when focusing on disadvantaged schools — both those with more poor students and those with lower test scores — which often have the hardest time keeping teachers. The new laws increased teacher turnover in high-poverty districts from 6.5 percent to about 8 percent each year.

The latest research joins recent research that tries to identify the impact of weakening teacher job protections. One found that gutting unions in Wisconsin substantially reduced student test scores; another showed that limiting teacher tenure in Louisiana led to a spike in teacher turnover. Both papers found the impact was largest on low-performing schools.

Other research, though, has painted a more positive picture. Studies in Chicago, Charlotte, New York City, and Washington, D.C. have linked scaling back job security or seniority provisions to better student outcomes or improved teacher quality — and in some cases those effects have been most felt in disadvantaged schools.

“Perhaps our most important conclusion from this work may be that policymakers should be attuned to the ways in which any major changes to the public education system affect different teachers and different children in different ways,” the Michigan study concludes.