NCTQ: We’re sure it will work! Even if research says it doesn’t!

Last spring, I had the pleasure of presenting on teacher labor market research in the same conference session in which a very interesting paper on mutual consent teacher contract changes was also presented (by Bethany Gross). This paper is a product of an organization I’ve poked fun at in the past (Center for Reinventing Public Education) but this one is good stuff, by credible authors.  The methods are relatively tight, but it is a bit tricky to figure out the implications of the findings – discussed blow.  This study fits into the broader topic and policy concern of “how do we get a better balance of teacher quality across poorer and less poor schools in the same district?”

Now, pundits (not these researchers) like those from Center for American Progress, Education Trust, some from CRPE and those from New Teacher Project and National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) all seem to argue that the biggest teacher quality/sorting problems are those that occur across rich and poor kids within school districts – all because of teacher seniority preferences, tenure and contractual issues which all favor the interests of adults over the interests of children – like letting the senior teacher keep his/her job in the cushy school in the district (or letting the senior teacher bump the junior teacher from such a position).

As I’ve shown in many recent posts, in general, rich kids and poor kids, black kids and white kids don’t often attend the same school districts – but for a few very large urban ones and some other sprawling countywide systems. The BIG disparities in resources and teacher characteristics are across not within districts. They are disparities that result across different bargaining units – not within bargaining units. So it’s pretty hard to argue that most disparities in teacher quality across rich and poor kids from one location to another are caused by seniority focused, adult interest, contractual provisions.

But, setting that broader issue aside, what do we actually know about within district disparities in the distribution of teacher characteristics, and whether changing contracts to remove these “offensive” protections can actually help redistribute teacher quality? Well, here’s what Gross and colleagues found:

We conduct an interrupted time-series analysis of data from 1998-2005 and find that the shift from a seniority-based hiring system to a “mutual consent” hiring system leads to an initial increase in both teacher turnover and share of inexperienced teachers, especially in the district’s most disadvantaged schools. For the most part, however, these initial shocks are corrected within four years leaving little change in the distribution of inexperienced teachers or levels of turnover across schools of different advantage.

So, initially the policy change actually made things worse and in the end, the policy change made things no different. There may actually be some reasonable explanations for these findings. Perhaps most problematic, teachers who are really beginning to hit their stride in years 5 to 10 or so, might take advantage of their newly discovered mobility to jump more quickly from positions in higher poverty, higher need schools into more desirable positions once reserved for the most senior teachers. This could create a substantial drain of quality – non-novice but not really old – teachers from high need schools.

Notice the URL for this study. It is posted on the NCTQ website. That doesn’t mean they ever read it though. SOMEHOW, THE NEW NCTQ REPORT WHICH ARGUES THAT THESE CHANGES ARE PART OF THE SOLUTION, DOESN’T PAY ANY ATTENTION TO THIS!

Here’s a link to that report:

Here’s the list of the 3 “major barriers” to improving the distribution of teacher quality, as identified by NCTQ:

• Centralized hiring. In most districts, the human resources office controls the hiring process, determining whom to recruit and hire and where to place teachers. Principals, at most, are given the opportunity to voice their preferences.

• Inadequate evaluations. Teachers in most districts are not regularly, or sufficiently, evaluated, meaning that evaluations can only play a minor role in personnel decisions, when they should be paramount. It is seniority, not performance, that decides the movement of teachers within the district.

• Contractual obligations. Most teacher contracts stipulate that, if a teacher loses her current assignment—because of a shift in the student population, for example—the district has to find her a new assignment, regardless of whether another school wants to accept the teacher. Compounding the problem is that most state laws limit the reasons districts can dismiss a teacher, and being without a classroom assignment is not one of them. Districts are left with little choice but to either assign teachers to positions or keep them on the payroll, sometimes for years, even if they aren’t teaching.

See that third one – Yep – it’s those  contractual provisions that keep these disparities in place. Remove then and all will be fixed!

Now briefly on their first point – that centralized hiring is the other really big problem. The answer – let school site principals make decisions and teachers decide which principal they really want to work for in a district. That couldn’t backfire?   Well, I used to believe the same – that this could be a reasonable idea. The problem with this idea is that principal quality is so disparately distributed. I have recently worked on several studies of principal labor markets, the distribution of principals by their academic preparation and other factors across schools within districts and the relationship between principal attributes and the teachers they hire. Given what we are learning from these studies, it is in fact very likely to backfire! The weakest principals tend to be in the highest need schools and weak principals tend to attract and potentially even retain weaker teachers.

This line in the NCTQ press release is particularly fun, because it’s based on nothing but “gut” and “emotional appeal” – which is always the best basis for experimenting with the lives of low income and minority children, right?

“Giving principals the authority to hire who works on their staff is critical,” says Kate Walsh, NCTQ’s president. “It is the only fair way to hold schools accountable for results. But if the principal doesn’t have enough control over the quality of her staff, the school—and, of course, the students—will suffer.”

You know what – not addressing the larger resource disparities across and within districts – which lead to the disparities in leadership quality across schools and districts – and then handing greater control over teacher hiring/firing to the least qualified principals in the highest need schools – yeah… that’s when children will suffer. Even if we start by getting good principals where they are needed most, we must provide them the resources to attract and retain the “better” teachers.

To summarize:

1. Decentralizing control of teacher hiring to principals, where principal quality distribution is disparate, to the disadvantage of high need schools, is likely to lead to worse, not better distribution of teacher quality;

2. Altering contractual provisions, such as moving from seniority based to mutual consent placement, appears to disadvantage higher need schools initially and in the end, leads to little or no substantive change in the distribution of teachers across schools.

Yet, let’s go with it. What the heck. Why not – it chips away at those facially offensive protections of stubborn old selfish, lazy unproductive teachers (yes, I do know a few, but that’s not the point). We know it should work, even if we have no evidence to that effect. When organizations like NCTQ present policy recommendations against their own evidence and built on such flimsy logic, why do we even listen?

Additional resources

The NCTQ report above concludes with a rant about ESEA Comparability Regulations. For my thoughts, see:

Regarding financial resources, “autonomy” and the distribution of teachers, see: Baker, B.D. Re-arranging deck chairs in Dallas: Contextual constraints on within district resource allocation in large urban Texas school districts. DeckChairsinDallas.Baker

Regarding the distribution of school leaders, teacher hiring and all that stuff, see:

Fuller, E., Young, M.D., Baker, B.D. Career Paths and the Influence of School Principals on Teachers. (Available on request)

Baker, B.D., Fuller, E. The Declining Academic Quality of School Principals and Why it May Matter. Baker.Fuller.PrincipalQuality.Mo.Wi_Jan7

Punswick, E., Baker, B.D., Belt, C. Principal backgrounds and school leadership stability: Evidence from Missouri. Educational Administration Quarterly Punswick.Baker.Belt.MoPrins09

Principal moves/exits:

Principals and hiring:

(the references in the above articles may provide some additional useful guidance on the role and the current distribution of principals)

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