Unintended consequences

Did new evaluations and weaker tenure make fewer people want to become teachers? A new study says yes

When the Obama administration and states across the country embraced tougher evaluation and tenure rules for teachers, critics offered a familiar refrain: weakening teachers’ job security could make the profession less attractive and ultimately backfire.

Now a new study is among the first to suggest that this concern has become a reality, showing that after states put in place new evaluation and tenure rules, the number of new teaching licenses issued dropped substantially — a finding that researchers said suggests fewer people were interested in the job.

“We find consistent evidence that both implementing high-stakes evaluation reforms and repealing tenure reduced teacher labor supply,” concludes the paper, which controlled for a number of factors that might have affected the pool of teachers.

The study does not attempt to show any potential benefits of such reforms — and other research paints a more encouraging picture — but the latest analysis raises a caution flag for those insisting on tighter accountability for teachers.

Jason Grissom, a professor at Vanderbilt University, examined the paper, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, at Chalkbeat’s request and praised its approach: “The study is carefully done using standard methods in the field.”

However, Grissom pointed to one reason the impacts may not be as harmful as they might seem at first glance. “We don’t know whether the teachers who chose not to become licensed may have been less effective teachers,” he said. “If so, we can’t interpret the negative effects on new teacher supply as necessarily negative for the system overall.“

Matt Kraft, a Brown University professor and one of the study’s authors, said he thought changes to prevailing teacher evaluation systems were necessary, but warned they may have caused as much harm as good.

“In our effort to move towards a better direction, were the costs larger than the benefits? That’s quite possible,” he said.

Research estimates how tenure and evaluation changes affected interest in teaching

The study looks back at a spate of laws prompted in part by the federal Race to the Top program. Between 2011 and 2016, the vast majority of states instituted stricter teacher evaluation rules tied to student test scores; a handful of states also eliminated or dramatically weakened teacher tenure.

The researchers attempted to isolate the effects of those laws on how many people in a given state wanted to become teachers. That would seem straightforward, and many others have highlighted national declines in enrollment in teacher training programs as evidence that policy changes have deterred would-be teachers. But it is actually quite tricky to point to cause and effect because so many other factors could make a difference, including the Great Recession, as well as other education policy changes, like the adoption of Common Core.

To get around this, the authors controlled for a variety of factors — including the state of the economy, teacher salary, and other policy reforms — and used the timing of states’ new laws to examine how the pool of teachers changed in response. No matter how they sliced the data, they said, the results held: after states adopted reforms, the number of new teaching licenses — that is, people eligible to teach in public schools — dropped substantially.

The magnitude was fairly substantial: a decline of about 15 percent for both evaluation and tenure reforms.

However, the two different types of changes followed different patterns: Evaluation reforms led to a gradual drop in teachers, while tenure removal led to a sharp decline, followed by a return to previous levels after a few years.

Grissom did point to one factor that might complicate the findings: charter schools, whose teachers don’t all have to be certified in some states.

“Charter schools are a small proportion of public schools, but it’s plausible that at least some of what they are seeing (in terms of fewer initial licenses) could be shifting of new teachers out of traditional publics into the charter sector,” Grissom wrote in an email. (Kraft pointed out that the vast majority of states require most or all charter teachers to be licensed.)

Using a separate data set, the researchers show that the evaluation and tenure changes also led to a significant decrease in the number of graduates from university-based teacher training programs, though these effects were more modest.

There was no evidence that the drops in enrollment were consistently concentrated in areas where there tend to be teacher surpluses, like elementary education or social studies. Evaluation reforms also didn’t affect the selectivity of the universities attended by teacher training graduates. On the other hand, weakening tenure did seem to screen out prospective teachers from lower-ranked schools — a potentially positive result — but they also appeared to reduce the number of would-be black teachers, which could hinder efforts to diversify the profession.

Although the study is in line with popular wisdom, it actually marks a shift from previous research, including Grissom’s, which has found little evidence that school accountability reforms like No Child Left Behind made teachers as a whole more dissatisfied or likely to quit.

The exact explanation for the findings is up for debate: It’s unclear how many teachers actually lost their jobs becauses of the new laws. Although the changes were prompted in large part because of concerns that too many teachers got high evaluation ratings, subsequent research by Kraft and Temple University’s Allison Gilmour found that high marks persisted in new evaluation systems, although in most states there was a small uptick in the share of teachers rated below average.

“Even if accountability reforms have no direct effect on job protections or satisfaction, they may still affect new labor supply if they affect the perception among potential entrants into the profession that teaching is a less secure or enjoyable career,” the latest paper says.

Were teacher evaluation and tenure changes worth the cost? It’s unclear

The study highlights the potential negative consequences of many states’ policy changes, and gives some credence to the concerns of many teachers and public school advocates that such laws were destined to dissapoint.

The findings suggest that schools have a smaller applicant pool of teachers to choose from, potentially leading to shortages in certain areas. The paper shows that the number of teaching licenses issues has dropped substantially since 2008, and, at least through 2016 has not recovered. Kraft said the actual impacts of the smaller supply will likely vary by state, school, and subject area.

“This is one of — not the only — but a contributing factor to the challenge of staffing hard-to-staff schools and hard-to-staff positions,” he said.

At the same time, Kraft said, the study is far from a full accounting of the impacts of evaluation and tenure changes. A number of studies focusing on specific districts point to benefits, including helping struggling teachers improve or replacing them with better ones. Other recent studies have shown that teacher turnover jumps in high-poverty schools in the wake of such changes, though the impact on students is unclear.

Kraft said it would be impossible to fully quantify the costs and benefits of the new laws, but again emphasized the effects likely varied: “These reforms played out very differently across states, and even more so across districts within states.”

First Person

I’m a Florida teacher in the era of school shootings. This is the terrifying reality of my classroom during a lockdown drill.

Outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“Remember,” I tell the children, looking them in the eyes in the darkened classroom. “Remember to keep the scissors open. They’ll stab better that way.”

My students, the target demographic for many a Disney Channel sitcom, laugh nervously at me as they try to go back to their conversations. I stare at the talkative tweens huddling in a corner and sigh.

“Seriously, class,” I say in the tone that teachers use to make goosebumps rise. As they turn back to me with nervous laughter, I hold up that much-maligned classroom tool, the metal scissor that’s completely ineffective at cutting paper. “If a gunman breaks in, I’ll be in the opposite corner with the utility knife.” Said tool is in my hand, and more often used to cut cardboard for projects. All the blood it’s hitherto tasted has been accidental. “If I distract him and you can’t get out, we have to rush him.” I don’t mention that my classroom is basically an inescapable choke point. It is the barrel. We are the fish.

They lapse into silence, sitting between the wires under the corner computer tables. I return to my corner, sidestepping a pile of marbles I’ve poured out as a first line of defense, staring at the classroom door. It’s been two hours of this interminable lockdown. This can’t be a drill, but no information will be forthcoming until it’s all over.

I wonder if I really believe these actions would do anything, or am I just perpetrating upon my students and myself the 21st century version of those old “Duck and Cover” posters.

We wait.

The lockdown eventually ends. I file it away in the back of my head like the others. Scissors are handed back with apathy, as if we were just cutting out paper continents for a plate tectonics lab. The tool and marbles go back into the engineering closet. And then, this Wednesday, the unreal urge to arm myself in my classroom comes back. A live feed on the television shows students streaming out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a high school just a short drive away. I wonder whether the teachers in its classrooms have passed out scissors.

*

The weapons. It’s not a subject we teachers enjoy bringing up. You’d have an easier time starting a discussion on religion or politics in the teacher’s lounge then asking how we all prepare for the darkness of the lockdown. Do you try to make everyone cower, maybe rely on prayer? Perhaps you always try to convince yourself it’s a drill. Maybe you just assume that, if a gun comes through the door, your ticket is well and truly up. Whatever token preparation you make, if at all, once belonged only to the secret corners of your own soul.

In the aftermath of Parkland, teachers across the nation are starting to speak. The experience of being isolated, uninformed, and responsible for the lives of dozens of children is now universal to our profession, whether because of actual emergencies or planned drills. You don’t usually learn which is which until at least an hour and sometimes not until afterwards. In both cases, the struggle to control the dread and keep wearing the mask of bravery for your students is the same.

And you need a weapon.

I’ve heard of everything from broken chair legs lying around that never seem to be thrown away to metal baseball bats provided by administration. One teacher from another district dealt with it by always keeping a screwdriver on her desk. “For construction projects,” she told students. She taught English.

There’s always talk, half-jokingly (and less than that, lately) from people who want teachers armed. I have a friend in a position that far outranks my own whose resignation letter is ready for the day teachers are allowed to carry guns in the classroom.

I mean, we’ve all known teachers who’ve had their cell phones stolen by students …

*

Years earlier, I am in the same corner. I am more naïve, the most soul-shaking of American massacres still yet to come. The corner is a mess of cardboard boxes gathered for class projects, and one of them is big enough for several students to crawl inside.

One girl is crying, her friend hugging her as she shakes. She’s a sensitive girl; a religious disagreement between her friends having once brought her to tears. “How can they be so cruel to each other?” She asked me after one had said that Catholics didn’t count as Christians.

I frown. It’s really my fault. An offhand comment on how the kids needed to quiet down because I’m not ready to die pushed her too far. Seriously rolling mortality around in her head, she wanted nothing more than to call her family. None of them are allowed to touch their cell phones, however, and the reasoning makes sense to me. The last thing we need is a mob of terrified parents pouring onto campus if someone’s looking to pad their body count.

She has to go to the bathroom, and there are no good options.

I sit with her, trying to comfort her, wondering what the occasion is. Is there a shooter? Maybe a rumor has circulated online. Possibly there’s just a fleeing criminal with a gun at large and headed into our area. Keeping watch with a room full of potential hostages, I wonder if I can risk letting her crawl through the inner building corridors until she reaches a teacher’s bathroom. We wait together.

It seemed different when I was a teen. In those brighter pre-Columbine times, the idea of a school shooting was unreal to me, just the plot of that one Richard Bachman book that never seemed to show up in used book stores. I hadn’t known back then that Bachman (really Stephen King) had it pulled from circulation after it’d been found in a real school shooter’s locker.

Back then my high school had plenty of bomb threats, but they were a joke. We’d all march out around the flagpole, sitting laughably close to the school, and enjoy the break. Inevitably, we’d all learn that the threat had been called in by a student in the grip of “senioritis,” a seemingly incurable disease that removes the victim’s desire to work. We’d sit and chat and smile and never for a second consider that any of us could be in physical danger. The only threat we faced while waiting was boredom.

*

Today, in our new era of mass shootings, the school districts do what they can, trying to plan comprehensively for a situation too insane to grasp. Law enforcement officials lecture the faculty yearly, giving well-rehearsed speeches on procedures while including a litany of horrors meant to teach by example.

At this level, we can only react to the horrors of the world. The power to alter things is given to legislators and representatives who’ve been entrusted with the responsibility to govern wisely while listening to the will of the people. It’s they who can change the facts on the ground, enact new laws, and examine existing regulations. They can work toward a world where a lockdown is no longer needed for a preteen to grapple with gut-churning fear.

We’re still waiting.

K.T. Katzmann is a teacher in Broward County, Florida. This piece first appeared on The Trace, a nonprofit news site focused on gun violence.

teacher prep

Three of Tennessee’s largest teacher training programs improve on state report card

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

Three of Tennessee’s 10 largest teacher training programs increased their scores on a state report card that seeks to capture how well new teachers are being prepared for the classroom based on state goals.

The University of Tennessee-Knoxville became the first public university to achieve a top score under the State Board of Education’s new grading system, now in its second year. And Middle Tennessee State University and East Tennessee State University also improved their scores.

But most of Tennessee’s 39 programs scored the same in 2017 as in 2016. Those included the University of Memphis and Austin Peay State University.

And more than 40 percent landed in the bottom tiers, including the state’s largest, Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, along with other sizable ones like the University of Tennessee’s programs in Chattanooga and Martin.

The report card, released on Thursday, is designed to give a snapshot of the effectiveness of the state’s teacher preparation programs, a front-burner issue in Tennessee since a 2016 report said that most of them aren’t adequately equipping teachers to be effective in the classroom. Teacher quality is important because years of research show that teachers matter more to student achievement than any other aspect of schooling.

State officials say the top-tier score by UT-Knoxville is significant — not only because it’s a public school but because it was the state’s sixth largest training program in 2017. “As one of the state’s flagship public institutions, UTK is setting the bar for how to effectively train teachers at scale,” said Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the State Board. She cited the school’s “model internship program” and “close partnerships with local districts.”

In the previous year’s report card, the top scores only went to small nontraditional programs like Memphis Teacher Residency and Teach For America and private universities such as Lipscomb in Nashville and Union in Jackson.

That demographic recently prompted a call to action by Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. He told state lawmakers last month that it’s time to put traditional programs at public institutions under a microscope, especially since those colleges and universities produce 90 percent of the state’s new teachers.

“Sometimes an undue amount of discussion happens around alternative new teacher programs like Teach For America or the New Teacher Project …,” he said. “If we’re going to move the needle (on teacher training), it’s going to happen at the campus of a college or university.”

Tennessee has graded programs that train teachers since 2009 but redesigned its report card in 2016 to provide a clearer picture of their effectiveness for stakeholders ranging from aspiring teachers to hiring principals. The criteria includes a program’s ability to recruit a strong, racially diverse group of teachers-in-training; produce teachers for high-need areas such as special education and secondary math and science; and its candidates’ placement and retention in Tennessee public schools. Another metric is how effective those teachers are in classrooms based on their evaluations, including state test scores that show student growth.

Not everybody is satisfied with the report card’s design, though.

“It’s a real challenge to capture in one report the complexity of preparing our candidates to be teachers, especially when you’re comparing very different programs across the state,” said Lisa Zagumny, dean of the College of Education at Tennessee Tech, which increased its points in 2017 but not enough to improve its overall score.

She said Tech got dinged over student growth scores, but that only a third of its graduates went on to teach in tested subjects. “And yet our observation scores are very high,” added Associate Dean Julie Baker. “We know we’re doing something right because our candidates who go on to teach are being scored very high by their principals.”

Racial diversity is another challenge for Tech, which is located in the Upper Cumberland region. “The diversity we serve is rural, first-generation college students who are typically lower socioeconomically,” said Zagumny.

Tennessee is seeking to recruit a more racially diverse teacher force because of research showing the impact of having teachers who represent the student population they are serving. Of candidates who completed Tennessee’s programs in 2016, only 14 percent were people of color, compared with 36 percent of the state’s student population.

Morrison said this year’s report card includes a new “highlights page” in an effort to allow programs to share a narrative about the work they’re doing. 

You can search for schools below, find the new 2017 scores, and compare them with the previous year. A 1 is the lowest performance category and a 4 is the highest. You can sort the list based on performance and size. This is the state’s first report card based on three years of data.