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.”

fight another day

In union defeat, lawmakers end session without revamping teacher evaluation law

After a hard-fought battle by the state teachers union, New York lawmakers went home for the summer without overhauling a controversial teacher evaluation law that ties state test scores to educator ratings.

The bill pushed by the unions would have left decisions about whether to use state test scores in teacher evaluations up to local union negotiations. While the bill cleared the Assembly, it was bottled up by the Senate’s leadership, which demanded charter school concessions in return that Assembly Democrats wouldn’t agree to.

The effort to decouple test scores from teacher evaluations was one of several that fizzled out at the end of a lackluster session characterized by lawmaker gridlock.

“Sen. Flanagan, his caucus and five Democrats chose to betray the state’s teachers,”  said New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta in a statement. “Make no mistake, New York teachers, parents and public school students will remember which senators voted against their public schools when we head to the polls this September and again in November.”

There is some possibility that lawmakers could return to finish a few unresolved issues this summer, but Pallotta told Chalkbeat he is not holding out hope for that outcome.

The lack of action is a defeat for the state teachers union, which fought hard for the bill since the beginning of the session. Union officials have staged musical rallies, bought balloons, rented a truck with a message urging lawmakers to pass the bill, and capped off the last day of session handing out ice cream for the cause.

However, the legislative loss gives the union something to rally around during this fall’s elections. Also, other education advocacy organizations are content to engage in a longer process to revamp evaluations.

“Inaction isn’t always the worst outcome,” said Julie Marlette, Director of Governmental Relations for the New York State School Boards Association.“Now we can continue to work with both legislative and regulatory figures to hopefully craft an update to evaluations that is thoughtful and comprehensive and includes all the stakeholders.”  

The news also means that New York’s teacher evaluation saga which has been raging for eight years will spill over into at least next year. Policymakers have been battling about state teacher evaluations since 2010, when New York adopted a system that started using state test scores to rate teachers in order to win federal “Race to the Top” money.

Teacher evaluations were altered again in 2015 when Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for a more stringent evaluation system, saying evaluations as they existed were “baloney.” The new system was met with resistance from the teachers unions and parents across the state. Nearly one in five families boycotted state tests in response to evaluation changes and a handful of other education policies.

The state’s Board of Regents acted quickly, passing a moratorium on the use of grades three to eight math and English tests in teacher evaluations. But the original 2015 law remains on the books. It was a central plank in that law which could require as much as half of an educator’s evaluation to be based on test scores that the unions targeted during this session.

With the moratorium set to expire in 2019, the fight over teacher evaluations will likely become more pressing next year. It may also allow the state education department to play a greater role in shaping the final product. State education department officials had begun to lay out a longer roadmap for redesigning teacher evaluations that involved surveys and workgroups, but the legislative battle threatened to short-circuit their process.

Now officials at the state education department say they will restart their work and pointed out that they could extend the moratorium to provide extra time if needed.

“We will resume the work we started earlier this year to engage teachers, principals and others as we seek input in moving toward developing a new educator evaluation system,” said state education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis.

For some education advocates, slowing down the process sounds like a good idea.

“Our reaction on the NYSUT Assembly teacher evaluation bill is that you could do worse but that you could also do better and that we should take time to try,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

What seems to be a setback for the union now may be a galvanizing force during elections this fall. Republican lawmakers will likely struggle to keep control of the state Senate, and NYSUT is promising to use this inaction against them. That could be particularly consequential in Long Island, which is a hotbed of the testing opt-out movement.

It’s unclear whether the failure to act will also prove problematic for Cuomo, who is also seeking re-election. Cuomo, who pushed for the 2015 law the unions despise, is facing competition from the left in gubernatorial challenger Cynthia Nixon.

But at least so far, it seems like the union is reserving the blame for Senate Republicans and not for the governor.

Cuomo is “making it clear that he has heard the outcry,” said Pallotta. “I blame Senator Flanagan, I blame his conference and I blame 5 [Senate] Democrats.”

a high-stakes evaluation

The Gates Foundation bet big on teacher evaluation. The report it commissioned explains how those efforts fell short.

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Sixth-grade teacher James Johnson leads his students in a gameshow-style lesson on energy at Chickasaw Middle School in 2014 in Shelby County. The district was one of three that received a grant from the Gates Foundation to overhaul teacher evaluation.

Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address reflected the heady moment in education. “We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000,” he said. “A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance.”

Bad teachers were the problem; good teachers were the solution. It was a simplified binary, but the idea and the research it drew on had spurred policy changes across the country, including a spate of laws establishing new evaluation systems designed to reward top teachers and help weed out low performers.

Behind that effort was the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which backed research and advocacy that ultimately shaped these changes.

It also funded the efforts themselves, specifically in several large school districts and charter networks open to changing how teachers were hired, trained, evaluated, and paid. Now, new research commissioned by the Gates Foundation finds scant evidence that those changes accomplished what they were meant to: improve teacher quality or boost student learning.  

The 500-plus page report by the Rand Corporation, released Thursday, details the political and technical challenges of putting complex new systems in place and the steep cost — $575 million — of doing so.

The post-mortem will likely serve as validation to the foundation’s critics, who have long complained about Gates’ heavy influence on education policy and what they call its top-down approach.

The report also comes as the foundation has shifted its priorities away from teacher evaluation and toward other issues, including improving curriculum.

“We have taken these lessons to heart, and they are reflected in the work that we’re doing moving forward,” the Gates Foundation’s Allan Golston said in a statement.

The initiative did not lead to clear gains in student learning.

At the three districts and four California-based charter school networks that took part of the Gates initiative — Pittsburgh; Shelby County (Memphis), Tennessee; Hillsborough County, Florida; and the Alliance-College Ready, Aspire, Green Dot, and Partnerships to Uplift Communities networks — results were spotty. The trends over time didn’t look much better than similar schools in the same state.

Several years into the initiative, there was evidence that it was helping high school reading in Pittsburgh and at the charter networks, but hurting elementary and middle school math in Memphis and among the charters. In most cases there were no clear effects, good or bad. There was also no consistent pattern of results over time.

A complicating factor here is that the comparison schools may also have been changing their teacher evaluations, as the study spanned from 2010 to 2015, when many states passed laws putting in place tougher evaluations and weakening tenure.

There were also lots of other changes going on in the districts and states — like the adoption of Common Core standards, changes in state tests, the expansion of school choice — making it hard to isolate cause and effect. Studies in Chicago, Cincinnati, and Washington D.C. have found that evaluation changes had more positive effects.

Matt Kraft, a professor at Brown who has extensively studied teacher evaluation efforts, said the disappointing results in the latest research couldn’t simply be chalked up to a messy rollout.

These “districts were very well poised to have high-quality implementation,” he said. “That speaks to the actual package of reforms being limited in its potential.”

Principals were generally positive about the changes, but teachers had more complicated views.

From Pittsburgh to Tampa, Florida, the vast majority of principals agreed at least somewhat that “in the long run, students will benefit from the teacher-evaluation system.”

Source: RAND Corporation

Teachers in district schools were far less confident.

When the initiative started, a majority of teachers in all three districts tended to agree with the sentiment. But several years later, support had dipped substantially. This may have reflected dissatisfaction with the previous system — the researchers note that “many veteran [Pittsburgh] teachers we interviewed reported that their principals had never observed them” — and growing disillusionment with the new one.

Majorities of teachers in all locations reported that they had received useful feedback from their classroom observations and changed their habits as a result.

At the same time, teachers in the three districts were highly skeptical that the evaluation system was fair — or that it made sense to attach high-stakes consequences to the results.

The initiative didn’t help ensure that poor students of color had more access to effective teachers.

Part of the impetus for evaluation reform was the idea, backed by some research, that black and Hispanic students from low-income families were more likely to have lower-quality teachers.  

But the initiative didn’t seem to make a difference. In Hillsborough County, inequity expanded. (Surprisingly, before the changes began, the study found that low-income kids of color actually had similar or slightly more effective teachers than other students in Pittsburgh, Hillsborough County, and Shelby County.)

Districts put in place modest bonuses to get top teachers to switch schools, but the evaluation system itself may have been a deterrent.

“Central-office staff in [Hillsborough County] reported that teachers were reluctant to transfer to high-need schools despite the cash incentive and extra support because they believed that obtaining a good VAM score would be difficult at a high-need school,” the report says.

Evaluation was costly — both in terms of time and money.

The total direct cost of all aspects of the program, across several years in the three districts and four charter networks, was $575 million.

That amounts to between 1.5 and 6.5 percent of district or network budgets, or a few hundred dollars per student per year. Over a third of that money came from the Gates Foundation.

The study also quantifies the strain of the new evaluations on school leaders’ and teachers’ time as costing upwards of $200 per student, nearly doubling the the price tag in some districts.

Teachers tended to get high marks on the evaluation system.

Before the new evaluation systems were put in place, the vast majority of teachers got high ratings. That hasn’t changed much, according to this study, which is consistent with national research.

In Pittsburgh, in the initial two years, when evaluations had low stakes, a substantial number of teachers got low marks. That drew objections from the union.

“According to central-office staff, the district adjusted the proposed performance ranges (i.e., lowered the ranges so fewer teachers would be at risk of receiving a low rating) at least once during the negotiations to accommodate union concerns,” the report says.

Morgaen Donaldson, a professor at the University of Connecticut, said the initial buy-in followed by pushback isn’t surprising, pointing to her own research in New Haven.

To some, aspects of the initiative “might be worth endorsing at an abstract level,” she said. “But then when the rubber hit the road … people started to resist.”

More effective teachers weren’t more likely to stay teaching, but less effective teachers were more likely to leave.

The basic theory of action of evaluation changes is to get more effective teachers into the classroom and then stay there, while getting less effective ones out or helping them improve.

The Gates research found that the new initiatives didn’t get top teachers to stick around any longer. But there was some evidence that the changes made lower-rated teachers more likely to leave. Less than 1 percent of teachers were formally dismissed from the places where data was available.

After the grants ran out, districts scrapped some of the changes but kept a few others.

One key test of success for any foundation initiative is whether it is politically and financially sustainable after the external funds run out. Here, the results are mixed.

Both Pittsburgh and Hillsborough have ended high-profile aspects of their program: the merit pay system and bringing in peer evaluators, respectively.

But other aspects of the initiative have been maintained, according to the study, including the use of classroom observation rubrics, evaluations that use multiple metrics, and certain career-ladder opportunities.

Donaldson said she was surprised that the peer evaluators didn’t go over well in Hillsborough. Teachers unions have long promoted peer-based evaluation, but district officials said that a few evaluators who were rude or hostile soured many teachers on the concept.

“It just underscores that any reform relies on people — no matter how well it’s structured, no matter how well it’s designed,” she said.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that about half of the money for the initiative came from the Gates Foundation; in fact, the foundation’s share was 37 percent or about a third of the total.