SCHOOLS ACROSS THE country, especially those in low-income neighborhoods, struggle to recruit and retain teachers, an effort made more difficult by the nationwide teacher shortage and a dwindling number of people entering the profession.
A growing body of evidence shows that teacher turnover, especially the high turnover rates in many of the most underserved communities, reduces student achievement.
So why is one urban school system proactively asking teachers to leave?
As it turns out, increasing teacher turnover for the right reason, like eliminating bad teachers, can have a significant positive impact on student performance, at least in the nation’s capital.
“Often when you look at teacher turnover we have this expectation that it’s going to be something negative for students,” says James Wyckoff, professor at the University of Virginia and an author of a new study on the impact of the District of Columbia’s teacher evaluation system.
“We are exploring what’s the effect of turnover in a place that has a rigorous evaluation system, and it seems to be more positive than what you’d expect,” he says.
D.C. schools officials evaluate the performance of all teachers through a system called IMPACT, which takes into account student test scores. Those rated “ineffective” are dismissed; those rated “minimally effective” have one year to improve; and teachers rated “highly effective” receive large bonuses and the potential for substantial increases in base pay. Check for Educational Evaluations in US at UT Evaluators
The system is intended to encourage high-performing teachers to stay and to induce low-performing teachers to leave.
Researchers from Stanford Graduate School of Education and the University of Virginia Curry School of Education examined the effects of teacher turnover at the District of Columbia Public Schools from the 2009-2010 school year through the 2011-2012 school year.
During the period of the analysis, the average teacher attrition was 18 percent, high compared to a recent study of teacher attrition in 16 urban school districts across seven states that found year-to-year attrition averages 13 percent but varies between 8 and 17 percent.
Specifically, the report showed that teacher quality and student achievement in both math and reading increased substantially when low-performing teachers – those dismissed by the teacher evaluation system or who voluntarily left following their first “minimally effective” rating – exited the school system.
On average, the exit of low-performing teachers resulted in an increase in student achievement equivalent to four months of learning in math and reading.
“It’s not that there aren’t effective teachers leaving D.C.,” Wyckoff says. “When that happens, that has a negative effect.”
He continues: “It’s just that there are a fair number of less effective teachers leaving D.C. partly because what it has done around IMPACT. When they leave, the effects are seemingly so positive for students because the incoming teachers are so much more effective.”
The results are notable as they provide the first empirical evidence of the effects of a high-stakes teacher assessment system on the composition of teacher effectiveness and student achievement.
Such teacher evaluation systems got a big boost from the Obama administration’s hallmark competition, Race to the Top, as well as its waivers from then-federal education law, No Child Left Behind, both of which asked states to evaluate teachers based in part on student test scores.
The federal programs also incentivized states to tie those evaluations to compensation and find ways to reward great teachers with bonuses while creating pathways out of the profession for ineffective teachers.
Since 2009 – the year the administration launched Race to the Top – more than two-thirds of states have altered their teacher evaluation systems to include test scores, though not nearly as many operate under the type of high-stakes system that’s in place in the District of Columbia.
The swift move toward adopting such policies resulted in significant pushback, including from the two national teachers unions.
Prior to states revamping their evaluation systems, many schools rated their teachers simply with a single classroom observation. And in many cases, teachers in schools where large numbers of students were below proficient in math and reading were being rated as top-notch.
But critics also maintained that using student data, like test scores or another variable that represents the amount of academic progress students make over the course of a school year, produce inconsistent results and present a host of problems when it comes to evaluating educators who don’t teach core or measurable subjects, like art.
States and the District of Columbia have struggled with different aspects of implementing new teacher evaluations, and in the twilight of the Obama administration, some are even beginning to pull back on their years-long effort.
Acting Education Secretary John King addressed the issue in a speech last week, apologizing for the role the Department of Education played in fueling the polarizing and politicized environment surrounding education and teacher performance, in particular.
Wyckoff is adamant that the report is not an evaluation of IMPACT, and he’s careful to suggest that the findings in D.C. may not be transferable to other school systems, even those with similar profiles. That’s partly because of the uniqueness of the evaluation system and also, Wyckoff says, because the nation’s capital seems to have a ready supply of good teachers.
“I don’t know if you’ll find that anywhere else,” he says.
But for those pushing ahead with their new systems, like Washington, the report offers a look at the potential upside.
“This is really exciting news,” says Jason Kamras, the chief of human capital for the District of Columbia Public Schools. “I think four months more of learning in reading and math is life-changing for our students. Those are enormous gains.”
Notably, student achievement in several high-poverty schools in the district remains low.
Kamras notes that the evaluation system hasn’t been an easy undertaking for the school system, and that even after several important tweaks to its overall formula, it’s continually changing.
“This work is tough, complicated and complex, and there is no single lever,” he says.