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.”

strike vote looming

Denver district, board members frame teacher contract negotiations as debate over values

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Denver school board members get the latest on negotiations that have hit a turning point.

With time running out to strike a deal with the teachers union, Denver school district officials in a special board meeting Wednesday portrayed the unresolved issues in contract negotiations as a clash over values.

The hastily called meeting was primarily a briefing for school board members from the district’s chief negotiators and Superintendent Susana Cordova. But it was also a chance for the district — and a board that generally supports its positions — to seize the narrative.

Cordova framed the district’s stance as honoring core district values, including getting teachers into hard-to-staff jobs and high-poverty schools, and keeping them there.

Under negotiation is the district’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp. It offers teachers a base salary and allows them to earn bonuses and incentives for things like high student test scores or working in a hard-to-fill position. The union would like to take some incentive money and put it toward higher base pay to lift the salaries of all teachers.

The district’s general counsel, Michelle Berge, on Wednesday said the union wants to take $10 million being used now to incentivize teaching in high-poverty schools and spread the money around “like peanut butter.”

Talks hit a sticking point Tuesday, with the union insisting the district embrace a salary table with its preferred structure for paying teachers by “steps” corresponding to a teacher’s experience and “lanes” representing education. 

The two sides have bargaining sessions scheduled for Thursday and Friday, and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association has pledged to hold a strike vote Saturday if an agreement isn’t reached.

Denver teachers have long said the pay-for-performance system is too complicated and unpredictable.

Cordova acknowledged the two sides are far apart on money. The money on the table for teachers now, she said, “is not enough.” But she said the two sides should reach an agreement, then work together to “fix the core of the problem” — how the state funds schools.

Wednesday’s meeting gave board members a platform as Denver inches closer to what would be its first teachers strike in 25 years.

Board member Jennifer Bacon said a system in which teachers don’t know what they are going to be paid — it can vary from year to year under ProComp — is “crazy.” 

“What are we really negotiating on to make teaching an idolized profession?” said Bacon, one of two board members who often push back against the district’s policies.

Member Happy Haynes said she put a higher priority on rewarding teachers who take hard-to-fill jobs and work in high-poverty schools.

“It isn’t just simply numbers moving around on cells on a spreadsheet,” she said. “There are values that we are articulating here.”

A teachers union representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Union President Henry Roman, however, has previously cited values in articulating the union’s stance.

“We know the district has the money to pay teachers a living wage,” Roman said in a statement last week, “and it’s time that they get serious about budgeting their stated values, so that we can have a deal by the 18th and prevent further stress on educators, students, and the community. Any further delay in getting a fair and transparent compensation system will only serve to aggravate the situation.”

On Friday, district officials presented a new proposal that would put an additional $6 million into teacher pay. That’s on top of the additional $17 million the district had already proposed, for a total of $23 million more. Taking into account a previously promised cost-of-living raise, the $23 million would increase teachers’ base pay by 10 percent from this school year to the next on average, district officials said.

Board member Carrie Olson, a former teacher, indicated the school district has more work to do to describe its offer.

“When I sit here, I know it sounds good, but I know that is not translating into the teachers in our schools,” Olson said. “The feeling isn’t, ‘This is a great deal.’”

That doesn’t appear to be lost on district officials. Cordova fielded teacher questions for an hour late Wednesday afternoon during a “telephone town hall” with educators after the district blasted them with robocalls informing them of the opportunity.

Teachers, meanwhile, organized informational community meetings at no fewer than three Denver schools Wednesday afternoon or evening, part of an effort to engage parents, said union vice president Christina Medina. In some cases, school administrators took part in those or previous meetings to discuss implications of a strike and explain the district position, she said.

“No one is more invested than parents,” said Medina, a teacher at Academia Ana Marie Sandoval elementary school in northwest Denver. “So connecting with them is important because they love our kids and we love our kids. It’s making sure we are on the same page. Making sure that teachers stay and we have great teachers in Denver.”

First Person

Why I won’t strike: Denver teachers in high-poverty schools, like me, deserve real bonuses

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I’m in my eighth year teaching in Denver Public Schools. I have spent my career teaching in Montbello, where a majority of my students qualify for free and reduced lunch. I have a master’s degree in English, and at High Tech Early College, I teach primarily concurrent enrollment classes, for which students receive both high school and college credit.

For the last five years, I have been rated “distinguished,” the district’s highest evaluation rating for teachers. That rating, plus my degree and the fact that I teach at a high-poverty school, means I benefit from many aspects of our current pay system, known as ProComp.

So I’m watching the Denver teacher’s union negotiations for a new pay scale closely. And I’m concerned.

For one, I believe that my distinguished rating reflects my hard-earned successes in the classroom. The union has advocated successfully to end bonuses tied to evaluations under the new contract, which is disappointing. I see that change as funding less effective teachers at the expense of others, and I worry they could drive strong teachers from the district.

But far more important to me are the existing bonuses for teachers who work in high-poverty schools. The union is advocating to shrink bonuses for teachers in Title I schools to $1,500 from $2,500, and redistributing the rest to increase everyone’s base pay.

I can tell you from experience that schools where many students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — an indicator of poverty — face complex and often painful challenges. We don’t talk enough about how, all over America, most poor kids go to school with poor kids and rich kids go to school with rich kids. That means teachers in schools like mine aren’t working with a few students arriving with challenges — behavior problems, unaddressed trauma, worries about being undocumented, for example — but often entire classes of students who need special attention for those reasons.

If those bonuses keep shrinking, what incentivizes teachers to teach at schools like ours? If it’s the same pay at two schools, what will bring teachers into the places where we need them the most? A sense of vocation and moral purpose, for sure, but that ignores reality. Turnover at my school is relatively high, and evening out teacher pay could make it worse. Students at those schools deserve great teachers who stick around.

To be clear, I love High Tech, and I’m not going anywhere. And I’m not anti-union. All teachers should be compensated for the hard and important work that they do, and I’m excited to see pay rise for everyone. I don’t believe that strong base pay and bonus money for qualified educators are mutually exclusive.

But the union’s stance on high-poverty schools is indefensible. I hope it reconsiders.

Alison Corbett is a teacher at High Tech Early College and was a 2017-18 Teach Plus Colorado Fellow.