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Are Evaluation and Tenure Reforms Scaring Away Prospective Teachers?

Recent teacher-evaluation reforms have generally aimed at weeding out ineffective teachers and maintaining a level of quality in the profession—but according to a recent working paper, an "unintended consequence" might be that they're also chasing off aspiring teachers.

Those prospective teachers include some from selective universities, an indication that high-quality would-be teachers might be among those being deterred.

"I don't think the intent is to dissaude people from becoming teachers, [but it] looks as if it did have that negative overall effect," Matthew Kraft, a teacher-policy researcher and one of the authors of the paper, said about policy reforms that affect the teacher labor market.

Between 2007 and 2016, the new teacher labor supply fell more than 20 percent, the working paper found. During this same time period, states across the country beefed up their teacher-evaluation systems, in part due to incentives from the Obama administration's Race to the Top grant competition. By 2016, 44 states had implemented major reforms to teacher evaluation, including, in most cases, tying student test scores to teacher performance.

In some places, teachers who received low ratings could be dismissed or denied tenure (although research has shown that it's still really hard to fire ineffective teachers), and teachers with high ratings could receive a merit pay raise. Meanwhile, six states effectively eliminated tenure for new teachers.

In the states that adopted evaluation reforms, the number of new teaching licenses granted dropped by about 15 percent, the paper found. In the states that repealed tenure, it dropped by about 16 percent.

Kraft previously found that despite these evaluation reforms, nearly all teachers continue to be deemed effective. Principals are reluctant to give teachers bad ratings, Kraft and his colleagues found. 


See also: Principals Are Loath to Give Teachers Bad Ratings


Still, aspiring teachers may perceive teacher-evaluation reform differently, Kraft said.  

"One thing that I think is important is that a lot of folks talk about teacher-evaluation reform as primarily dismissing low-performing teachers, and that's a harsh working environment to enter," said Kraft, an assistant professor of education and economics at Brown University. "The reality suggests that very few teachers were dismissed under this system," but the perception is still there.

The paper found "consistent evidence" that evaluation reforms were linked to a steady decline of new teachers over time, while states that repealed tenure policies saw their new teacher supply undergo a sharp and immediate drop and then slowly rebound. The paper controlled for several other factors that could have affected the supply of teachers, including teacher salaries and other policy reforms. 

While Kraft wasn't able to pinpoint the reason why aspiring teachers were backing away from the profession, it could be because the teaching profession no longer feels secure, he said, or it could be due to word-of-mouth—seasoned teachers warning the newcomers to stay away. Among teachers who leave the profession, over half say it's because they're dissatisfied with their jobs

"Teachers feel they have less autonomy, they feel like the environment in which they're working is less about kind of collaboration—they're held individually accountable," he said. "Effectively, teachers have lost some elements of job security."

The researchers looked to see if the reforms had any effect on the quality of new teachers, based on the selectivity of their teacher-preparation program and the average freshman SAT scores at the institution. If reforms were resulting in a smaller pool of high-quality candidates, then that might be a positive result.  

But the research painted a more complicated picture. There was no consistent evidence that high-stakes evaluation reforms have deterred less-qualified candidates. There was some evidence that tenure reforms have dissuaded less-qualified teachers.

"Many of these reforms were motivated by research that made the assumption that you can always replace teachers who were dismissed with an average-quality new teacher," he said. "That assumption may not necessarily hold in many regions or subject areas."

There is also suggestive evidence that tenure reforms might have substantially reduced the supply of black teachers. One possible explanation is that those candidates might be looking for more job security.

It's a balancing act, Kraft said, between supporting and motivating current teachers "to do their very best work," and making teaching a profession that attracts the best and brightest.

"Those don't have to be at odds, but I think we often focus on teachers in the classroom without understanding the importance of recruiting the next generation of teachers," Kraft said.

This research is an example of policy playing out in the real world, rather than on paper, wrote Rick Hess, the director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and an Education Week opinion blogger.

"We ought to spend a lot more energy examining the dynamics of how system reforms actually play out in early adopters, before rushing to insist that they 'work' or to mandate them through policy," Hess wrote.

Kraft said the research is ongoing, and his team is currently refining the paper to submit to a journal (it has not been formally peer-reviewed). He added the findings are not likely to change substantially upon publication. 

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