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

We work at Denver’s Title I schools, too. Here’s why we’re ready to strike.

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Students in kindergarten on the first day of school at McGlone Academy.

We are a group of teachers representing schools in the far northeast region of Denver. Many of us now receive “incentives” for working at Title I schools where many students live in poverty — and we are also willing to strike in support of the union’s proposed salary structure, which moves some of the money used for those incentives into long-term base pay.

Why? In short, we would rather have our base pay prioritized than earn bonuses that are not reliable, may not be working, and may also take the pressure off the district to solve systemic problems our schools face.

Issue #1: The current bonuses can’t be relied on. The “hard to serve” school label is based on free and reduced-price lunch percentages, which vary on an annual basis. Teachers at Marie L. Greenwood Academy, for example, could lose their “hard to serve” label because their school dropped just barely below the threshold. Additionally, John Amesse Elementary School and McGlone Academy are less than two miles apart, serve similar populations, and are a part of the same network; however, due to ambiguous calculations based on test scores, free and reduced-price lunch numbers, and teacher turnover rates, McGlone teachers receive larger bonuses than John Amesse teachers. This is not fair nor equitable. Teachers need money they can depend on.

Issue #2: It’s not clear that the current bonuses are working. We have not seen conclusive evidence that the incentives we receive for working in hard to serve schools have affected teacher retention or recruitment. Every year, schools in our area are hiring for positions that often get filled by first-year teachers. Many of the schools that receive these incentives still suffer from the same high turnover rates the bonuses were meant to remedy.

Issue #3: The current bonuses let the district off the hook. Some have argued that teachers in Title I schools deserve significant bonuses because the challenges faced in our work are difficult and taxing. However, many of these issues are due to systemic problems that the district would be better off trying to solve directly.

We know that increasing incentive pay to work at “hard to serve” schools will not fix the issues around segregation in Denver Public Schools. Increasing incentive pay to work at “hard to serve” schools will not fix the issues around some schools lacking nurses, social workers, counselors, support for Spanish speaking and emerging bilingual students, and support for special education programs. It will not solve issues around the lack of reliable technology, funding for arts, comprehensive neighborhood schools, or the flood of issues that we all feel in our schools on a daily basis.

We support the union’s proposal because we want the decisions we make as educators to stem from a love of our schools, a desire to serve our students, and a hope to support our community. We want teachers to seek out and stay at our schools because they believe in our vision, our mission, our students, and our community.

We are also passionate about a clear and transparent pay schedule. We want that structure to recognize our dedication to the field and our commitment to furthering our education – not a system that provides one-time bonuses that are in our checks one year and absent the next due to circumstances outside our control.

Anyone who enters our classrooms will see that we are doing our best with the resources we have in order to lift up the students in Denver who are most impacted by systemic racism and poverty. Let us come together on this idea: Fair pay for teachers means better outcomes for students. If we can stand together on this, then we can help improve the lives of so many more students, teachers, and families.

This piece was written by Jessica Schneider, Noel Community Arts School; Tanessa Bass, John H. Amesse Elementary; Rebecca Roberts, John H. Amesse Elementary; Valerie Henderson, Sandra Todd Williams Academy; Brian Weaver, Florida Pitt Waller ECE-8; Michelle Garrison, Farrell B. Howell ECE-8; Michael Sitkin, DCIS @ Montbello; Cory Montrieul, DCIS @ Montbello; and Nik Arnoldi, Escalante-Biggs Academy.

Last minute

Teachers union continues voting on possible Denver strike

PHOTO: Michael Ciaglo/Special to the Denver Post
Eagleton Elementary School first grade teacher Valerie Lovato, left, and East High School French teacher Tiffany Choi hold up signs as the Denver teachers union negotiates with district officials.

Denver teachers resumed voting Tuesday evening on whether to go on strike, a decision that will touch tens of thousands of people in Colorado’s largest school district.

The vote comes after months of negotiations left Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association still $8 million apart and with serious philosophical disagreements about how teacher compensation should be structured. Denver teachers are riding a wave of activism by their peers across the country that began last year and continues to build. Teachers in Los Angeles just reached a tentative deal with their district after more than a week on strike.

Members of the teachers union began voting on a strike Saturday. A final round of voting began at 4 p.m. Tuesday and will end at 9 p.m. Union officials said Tuesday evening that results would be announced at 9:30 p.m.  

On Tuesday evening, a steady stream of teachers bundled against the cold made their way into a Knights of Columbus Hall in downtown Denver where the last voting session is taking place.

Maria Cruz, an early childhood education teacher for the past two years who previously worked as a paraprofessional in the district, said she voted “yes” to strike hoping it will push the district to close the gap between its offer and what the union is seeking.  

“Teachers come and go and come and go and they never stay because there is not enough pay,” she said. “It doesn’t validate the teaching profession.”

The earliest a strike could start would be Jan. 28. On Tuesday evening, district families received a robocall from Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova making clear that classes would go on as normal on Wednesday, and that district officials intend to keep schools open for the foreseeable future.   

Cordova has said she’ll ask for state intervention if the vote is yes, which could delay a strike. If teachers do walk out, the district intends to keep schools open and students learning by relying on substitutes, tapping central office staff with past teaching experience, and using pre-packaged lessons plans for every grade and subject area. 

A Denver strike would affect roughly 71,000 students in district-run schools.

District officials went on the offensive over the weekend, making the argument that their offer was generous and responsive to longstanding teacher complaints about stagnant salaries.   

The district also published its new salary schedule online alongside the salary schedules of other Denver metro area districts.

The two sides disagree on how much new money the district should put into teacher compensation and also on how that compensation should be structured. The district has said it will not compromise on offering bonuses to teachers at high-poverty and hard-to-serve schools. The union wants smaller bonuses and more money to go into base pay.

This would be the first teacher strike in Denver in 25 years.