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UPDATED: Effects of 'Mutual Consent' on Teacher Turnover, Distribution Probed

Over the long haul, mutual-consent teacher policies don't appear to improve the distribution of inexperienced teachers—or the levels of turnover in high-minority schools.

That's the conclusion of a recent analysis by researchers at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

If you're new to this wonky area of school hiring, mutual consent is a policy in which both the teacher seeking a placement and the receiving school's principal (and sometimes other staff) must agree to the placement. It differs from voluntary transfers or forced placements that are based on seniority.

D.C.; Rhode Island; Colorado; Austin, Texas; Chicago; and Milwaukee are some of the places that have either partly or totally done away with forced placements.

One of the perceived benefits of mutual-consent policies, as the New Teacher Project has shown in several reports, is that teachers placed through mutual consent seem to be happier in their schools than those where teachers were placed by the central office. That makes some degree of common sense, since principals aren't forced to hire teachers they don't want, nor are teachers forced to work in schools that aren't a good fit for them.

But does the policy change school staffing or transfer patterns? To find out, the CRPE researchers analyzed teacher records for a midsize urban district that instituted the policy in 2001 for many teachers. They examined records for four years on either side of the shift and compared the results.

UPDATE, 9/1/2010: A source brought to my attention that the district curtailed but did not totally eliminate forced placements.

They found that the teacher-experience gap between low- and high-minority schools actually increased following the shift. Teacher turnover in the district also soared and was most deeply felt in high-minority schools. Despite these initial "shocks" to the high-poverty schools, the report states, the rates self-corrected over time. But they left little overall improvement in the distribution of experienced teachers, or the teacher-transfer rate between low- and high-minority schools.

One possible reason: Disadvantaged schools might have a harder time retaining talented young teachers, since they no longer have to bide their time under seniority rules before transferring to schools perceived as more desirable. Also, the authors suggest that other changes might have occurred after the time period studied as principals became more comfortable with the new hiring policy.

"Although it might be necessary for school districts to lift hiring constraints to improve school staffing, lifting constraints alone is not sufficient to reshape the teacher workforce, especially in disadvantaged schools," the authors write.

These findings are hard to parse for a couple of reasons.

For one, the issue of teacher turnover is complicated. Generally speaking, turnover is not conducive to establishing a tight-knit group of instructors. But on the other hand, as some experts point out, not all turnover is a bad thing. You wouldn't want an ineffective teacher to stay in a low-performing school, and at least one study shows that teachers who do transfer from challenging schools are generally less effective than those who elect to stay.

Mutual consent doesn't appear to be a substitute for incentive programs to get more teachers to apply to challenging schools, officials at the National Council on Teacher Quality opined in a recent bulletin.

"The door keeps revolving; why should we be surprised?" NCTQ wrote. "A policy change that distributes senior teachers more equally would have to provide incentives for effective teachers to stay in high-poverty schools and middle-class schools to hire inexperienced teachers."

What do you think? Do the positives of mutual-consent hiring outweigh the negatives?

It's a difficult question to answer empirically and one that probably won't be settled until researchers can determine whether mutual-consent policies lead to better teacher and student outcomes, like improved working conditions or better student achievement.

(Hat tip to the NCTQ for bringing the study to my attention through its monthly bulletin.)

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