a test of happiness

When teachers are better at raising test scores, their students are less happy, study finds

Students practice for a state standardized test.

Is a good teacher one who makes students enjoy class the most or one who is strict and has high standards? And are those two types even at odds?

new study that tries to quantify this phenomenon finds that on average, teachers who are good at raising test scores are worse at making kids happy in class.

“Teachers who are skilled at improving students’ math achievement may do so in ways that make students less happy or less engaged in class,” writes University of Maryland’s David Blazar in the study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Education Finance and Policy.

The analysis doesn’t suggest that test scores are a poor measure of teacher quality, but does highlight the different ways teachers may be effective.

The research uses data from four school districts across three states between 2010 and 2013; in one year, students were randomly assigned to fourth- and fifth-grade teachers, allowing researchers to study what effect different teachers had on students. Those students were also surveyed about their behavior, self-efficacy, and happiness in class.

A large body of past research has found that teachers have a meaningful impact on student test scores, and a number of more recent studies have found that teachers also impact other measures — sometimes called non-cognitive outcomes — such as behavior and attendance. 

The latest study asks a few big questions.

First: Do teachers have an impact on students’ attitudes and behavior, as measured by student surveys? Here, the answer is convincingly yes, consistent with the emerging research.

Second: Are the statistical estimates — often called value-added  measures — of teacher impacts on test scores and non-cognitive skills accurate? The study examined this by comparing the statistical estimates to the results from from random assignment, and it found that the answer varies. Value-added measures are quite accurate for predicting test scores — an important finding in light of the charged debate on whether to judge teachers by these metrics. But it concludes that the statistical models are often biased for measuring  impact on student attitudes, suggesting that attempting to evaluate teachers in this regard may be misguided.

Finally: Is a teacher’s performance, measured by test scores, similar to performance according to other measures? This question is especially important because it’s key for understanding how to think about teacher quality and how to evaluate it.

The study concludes there was only a weak relationship between test score performance and student behavior and feeling of efficacy in math. But when it came to student happiness, there was a moderate negative association — on average, greater test score gains meant less happy students.

What explains this potentially surprising inverse relationship?

It could be that teachers who were less demanding were more popular because their instruction was less likely to promote learning — but more enjoyable for students. Maybe those teachers just popped in a video on many days; perhaps they never gave homework.

Blazar, for his part, is skeptical of this theory.

“I’m not sure that’s a likely explanation in large part because teachers’ emotional support for students … seems to be really predictive of how happy students are in class,” he said. “Building an emotionally supportive classroom environment is something that educators and researchers have cared about for a long time.”

Another interpretation, then, is that measures of teacher effectiveness based on test scores leave out important dimensions of what makes a good teacher — such as caring for students, something that might show up in happiness surveys.

Blazar emphasizes that while the correlation was negative and statistically significant it was not strong in size, meaning that there were certainly teachers who succeeded in improving both test scores and happiness.

Past research has generally shown that test-based measures capture some, but not all, of the components of effective teaching. Test score results tend to be only modestly related to other measures of performance, like classroom observations or effects on student attendance.

On the other hand, teachers’ impacts on tests have rarely been negatively related to other measures. In fact, there is usually a small positive association, including with regards to student surveys. Moreover, a number of studies have linked teachers’ and schools’ test score impacts to longer-term results, including adult income and college success.

“[Test score value-added] clearly can’t be all about things we don’t care about, such as test prep, if it translates into longer-run outcomes,” Blazar said.

“I think that both are likely important,” he said, referring to test scores and students’ engagement and happiness in class.

“Hopefully we can get to a place where teachers are good at multiple skills,” Blazar said. “Rather than just documenting this pattern, I would want to use this information to say, if you’re good at raising test scores but not as good at engaging students, how can we get you to a place where you can do both at the same time?”

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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.