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Offering Research-Based, Common Sense Solutions to Transform Public Education For All Students

January 25, 2013 posted by Rebecca Sibilia and Eric Lerum

As a follow-up to the release of our State Policy Report Card, we've received a lot of inquiries (and no shortage of attempts at criticism) regarding the research evidence behind the policies on which we grade states and for which we advocate across the country. Of course, we go into great detail about a lot of this in our national report, but we thought it was worth taking a moment to discuss the subject here as well.

Independent research, leading practices in the field, and real-world examples have informed, and will continue to inform, the StudentsFirst Policy Agenda. While there are many proposed solutions for improving education, StudentsFirst believes the set of policies we focus on in our agenda and described in our Report Card work together to create environments that enable educational success. By doing so, we believe it's possible to transform the egregious educational inequities we see in every state across this country.

Thus, with the State Policy Report Card, we have two main objectives: to inform the broader public with empowering information about their state education policies and to spur advocacy for change at the state level. Make no mistake -- StudentsFirst is, in fact, an advocacy organization, one that has a very clear sense of purpose and point of view. Whether or not you agree with our point of view or our policy recommendations is one thing; but to claim (as a few critics have over the past several weeks) that these policies are not informed by any research whatsoever is just nonsensical. As a proper rebuttal, we'll spend the rest of this post reviewing the assertions behind our policies and why we believe they're well supported by research and evidence.

Elevating the Teaching Profession: Teachers are the most important in-school determinant of student achievement. In fact, students with the highest-performing teachers gain five to six more months of learning.1 Conversely, students taught by an ineffective teacher lose two to three months of learning over the course of the school year2, and if a student has three ineffective teachers in a row, he or she is unlikely to recover those learning losses and will remain behind.3 More importantly, the impact of great teachers goes well beyond the classroom. Students of effective teachers are more likely to attend college, attend higher-ranked colleges, earn higher salaries, live in better neighborhoods, and have lower rates of teen pregnancy.4

Because teachers are so critical to a student's long-term success, we must establish policies that recognize, retain, and reward great teachers. This means we need to attract the best talent to the classroom, identify who is doing a great job, who needs professional development, and who is consistently underperforming, and then use that information to inform important staffing decisions.

We also need to ensure schools have strong leaders. Principals play a huge role in developing an effective teaching staff.5 When focused on ensuring high levels of instruction across classrooms, principals can have a significant impact on raising overall student achievement levels.6

Comprehensive Evaluation: Research examining traditional evaluation systems has shown them to be virtually meaningless to educators.7 Numerous studies, including the Measures of Effective Teaching paper that was released a couple of weeks back, tell us that multi-dimensional evaluations that include evidence of student academic growth are strong tools for identifying varying levels of teacher effectiveness.8 Estimates of a teacher's contribution to student learning gains -- such as value-added estimates -- have been shown to have high predictive power and serve an important measure within a comprehensive framework.9 Moreover, when you consider the growing body of research indicating how critical principals are to creating successful schools and increasing student achievement, it becomes clearer that stronger evaluations with defined observations rubrics leverage the principal's role in monitoring, developing, and supporting instruction.10 This research serves as the foundation for our recommendations to require schools to develop robust evaluation systems tied to professional development. And by robust, we mean evaluations that actually include evidence of student learning as determined through multiple measures -- not just test scores.

Use of Evaluations for Personnel Decisions: We believe that after evaluations differentiate performance of teachers, it is critical to use this information to inform personnel decisions and retain effective teachers in the classroom. It is an affront to students to not make every effort to ensure they have the best teachers at the head of their classrooms; however, the way most districts must operate forces them to ignore performance and instead prioritize seniority when making decisions. Multiple studies have demonstrated the profoundly negative consequences that result from a quality-blind system. Use of seniority-based layoffs disproportionately affect districts and schools serving minority students and low-income students.11 Additionally, this kind of quality blind decision-making results in greater job loss compared to a performance-based system, meaning more classrooms -- and therefore more students -- are disrupted.12 Studies that simulated and analyzed the differences between seniority-based and performance-based layoffs within the same districts found only a sixteen percent overlap between the two systems.13 And because teachers can be effective in every year of service, by laying off teachers solely based on seniority, districts guarantee that some effective teachers lose their jobs, while some ineffective teachers are left in the classroom. Ending these nonsensical policies is a social justice imperative. If we continue to hire and fire teachers based on seniority, when we know there are better ways to do this, we cheat our students and devalue teachers and their profession. These principles, and the arsenal of research behind them, are the basis for our policy recommendations to ensure a performance-based system that eliminates seniority-based layoffs, ends forced placement, and reforms or eliminates traditional tenure systems.

Attracting, Valuing, and Retaining the Best: Ensuring that effective teachers are in all classrooms also means attracting top talent into the teaching profession. Unlike other countries that are highly ranked for their education systems, the United States recruits fewer than a quarter of incoming teachers from the top third of college graduates.14 It is necessary to expand the talent pool of those who are recruited into the classroom. While there is more work to be done around improving existing teacher preparation programs, our policy agenda currently focuses on expanding alternative certification programs. High quality alternative certification programs have been shown to produce gains in student learning.15 Apart from math and science teachers with advanced degrees in those subjects, alternatively certified teachers without advanced degrees are just as effective as traditionally certified teachers.16 Through highly selective admission requirements and streamlined coursework, alternative certification opens the classroom to non-traditional candidates, with significant expertise or skills.

Once we have great teachers in our schools, we must value them for their impact and make every effort to retain effective educators. Schools must have the flexibility to design personnel systems that allow them to compete with other professions for talent; right now, it's fair to argue that schools are losing this fight. Today's workforce is simply more mobile and the competition for talented staff is steep, where 66 percent of 18- to 29-year olds anticipate changing careers in their lives, and nearly six in ten of those employed have already switched careers.17 Research is also finding this trend to be true for teachers. Over 40 percent of new teachers are career changers.18 Even those individuals who plan to be a teacher for their entire career don't plan to stay in the same state.19

Many assumptions policymakers make when designing teacher pay schedules and pension plans in hopes of motivating, attracting, and retaining effective teachers, in fact, do just the opposite. Teachers fill one of society's most critical roles, and yet they aren't able to earn nearly as much money, or earn it as quickly, as other professionals. A study examining teacher salary schedules found that while doctors and lawyers reach their full earning potential within 10 years of entry into the profession, teachers must wait three times as long, even though research suggests that they become fully competent in their field within six to ten years.20

The compensation issue is made worse by the fact that traditional pension plans by and large lock teachers out of any employer-contributed benefits for the first five to ten years of their career -- creating retirement insecurity -- and then lock them into the same position in the same state system for the next twenty to thirty years because their retirements plans offer no portability. These plans aren't fair to mobile teachers and severely hamper an administrator's ability to hire nationally. Not only do these plans create the wrong incentives by encouraging teachers to stay on the job longer than they may want to do so, but research has also found that these plans severely penalize teachers who move from one system to another.21 A teacher who splits a lifelong career between two pension plans is estimated to lose over half of their net pension wealth when compared to teachers who complete a career in a single system.22 If the teaching profession is going to meet the needs of today's workforce, districts must have the ability to offer more attractive options.

Traditional salary schedules base teacher pay on two primary factors: years of experience and degree type. Studies have repeatedly shown that while teachers make rapid improvement for the first few years of teaching, gains tend to level off after that.23 And with the exception of very few subject areas -- most notably secondary mathematics -- teachers with an advanced degree in the subject they teach are no more effective than those without such degrees.24 Strikingly, earning an advanced degree in education -- for example, from a teacher-training master's program -- does not appear to improve a teacher's ability to increase student learning.25

Yet nationally school districts spend approximately $15 billion annually rewarding teachers for these degrees.26 Districts could better spend these resources by providing higher salaries to their most effective teachers and providing coaching and mentoring to developing teachers. While the research on performance-based pay compensation systems is nascent, several studies have found that these kinds of incentive pay programs, when designed and implemented thoughtfully, lead to increased student outcomes.27 To be clear, however, the purpose of a salary system should be to attract quality applicants to a field, retain them once they prove to be successful in the classroom, and financially recognize those who excel – not to pay for inputs that we think will lead to greater outcomes, despite evidence to the contrary.

Empowering Parents by Increasing Quality Choices: We also recommend several policies that aim to ensure the quality of a student's school isn't predetermined by his or her zip code. Across the country, students from low-income households are much more likely to attend low-performing schools, and that negatively impacts their learning, development, and future prospects.28 Public charter schools have proven that every child, regardless of their socioeconomic status, can achieve at the highest levels. A study of public charter schools in Indiana found that the charter school students received an equivalent of one and a half more months of learning gains in reading and math than their traditional public school counterparts over the course of the year; in Indianapolis, charter schools produced approximately 2 months more in learning for reading and math.29 Another recent study that focused on New Jersey found that public charter school students gained an additional three months of learning in math, and two additional months of learning in reading compared to traditional public school students. Even more encouraging, charter students in Newark gained seven and a half months more learning in reading per year and nine months more learning in math per year.30 Because public charter schools have a higher level of autonomy from the red tape that traditional public schools are often bound by, these schools have room to innovate. Studies have shown that charter schools can be great options for parents by producing better results for students than traditional public schools in some urban areas.31 But we know not every charter can be a high performer; research clearly shows the overall results of charter schools is mixed32, and accountability is critical to ensure all public charters are offering educational options that are worthy of our students.33 Therefore it's critical that states institute polices that foster strong accountability for all charter schools and expansion for those that are serving their students well.

In some communities, however, there are no quality public education options, and students require another solution. Publicly funded vouchers – also called opportunity scholarships -- are one such solution. Voucher programs have been shown to increase graduation rates for African-American students and lead to better outcomes.34 Studies have shown that these programs can also create a ripple effect -- increasing the performance of traditional schools by introducing competition.35 This fuels our policy recommendation to ensure low-income families stuck in low-performing schools have access to this additional, powerful form of school choice.

Looking Forward:

Some folks have pointed out that a few of our policy recommendations -- like Parent Trigger, for instance -- are untested and too new to know if they can, in fact, produce better results for students. While it may be correct that there is not a direct link to demonstrated increases in student achievement, these policies are based on the same sound principles and concepts discussed above. We believe that, in some instances, states must disrupt their status quo policies that have enabled the public education system to languish for far too long in mediocrity. The objective may be to empower parents with more information, as is the case with Parent Notification. Until parents and community members are given meaningful entry points into the education system, they will never be able to become the kind of thought-partners and supporters that schools and teachers desperately desire. In other cases, we are seeking to provide room for innovation to those within the system, illustrated through our policy recommendation to eliminate categorical spending limits. Innovation often precedes research, and in some cases, researchers must play the role of validator, after the fact.

Ultimately these policies share the same overarching goal. They are not solutions in and of themselves, but rather means to the same end – an environment that enables schools and students to succeed. We are confident that such an environment is possible. We invite you to take a deeper look into our policy agenda, and the research and thought that informs it. Please read the "Policy Agenda: The Big Picture" section within our State Policy Report Card National Report (p.33).

  1. "The Irreplaceables: Understanding the Real Retention Crisis in America's Urban Schools," The New Teacher Project, 2012.
  2. Goldhaber, Dan and Roddy Theobald. "Assessing the Determinants and Implications of Teacher Layoffs." Working Paper, National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, 2010.
  3. Sanders, William L. and June C. Rivers, "Cumulative and Residual Effects of Teachers on Future Student Academic Achievement", Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, November 1996.
  4. Chetty, Raj, John Friedman, and Jonah Rockoff. "The Long-Term Impacts of Teachers: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood." Working Paper, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2011.
  5. Hanushek, Eric, Gregory Branch, and Steven Rivkin. "Estimating the Effect of Leaders on Public Sector Productivity: The Case of School Principals." National Bureau of Economic Research, 2012.
  6. Leithwood, Kenneth, Karen Seashore Louis, Stephen Anderson, and Kyla Wahlstrom, "Review of Research: How Leadership Influences Student Learning," The Wallace Foundation, 2004.
  7. Weisberg, Daniel, Susan Sexton, Jennifer Mulher, and David Keeling. "The Widget Effect." The New Teacher Project, 2009.
  8. Chetty et al., 2011. "Ensuring Fair and Reliable Measures of Effective Teaching." Measures of Effective Teaching Project (MET), 2013.
  9. MET, 2013. Chetty et al., 2011.
  10. Hanushek et al., 2012. Rice, Jennifer. "Principal Effectiveness and Leadership in an Era of Accountability: What Research Says." Urban Institute, 2010.
  11. Sepe, Cristina and Marguerite Roza. "The Disproportionate Impact of Seniority-Based Layoffs on Poor, Minority Students. Schools in Crisis: Making Ends Meet." Center on Reinventing Public Education, University of Washington, May 2010. Goldhaber, Dan and Roddy Theobald, "Managing the Teacher Workforce." Education Next Vol. 11, No. 4, 2011.
  12. Boyd, Donald B, Hamilton Lankford, Susanna Loeb, and James H. Wycoff. "Teacher Layoffs: An Empirical Illustration of Seniority vs. Measures of Effectiveness." CALDER Brief 12, The Urban Institute, 2010.
  13. Ibid. Goldhaber and Theobald, 2011.
  14. Auguste, Byron, and Matt Miller. "Closing the Talent Gap: Attracting and Retaining the Top-Third Graduates to Careers in Teaching: An International and Market Research-Based Perspective." McKinsey & Company, 2010.
  15. Sass, T.R. "Certification Requirements and Teacher Quality: A Comparison of Alternative Routes to Teaching." Georgia State University, 2011.
  16. Goldhaber, Dan and Dominic Brewer. "Does Teacher Certification Matter? High School Teacher Certification Status and Student Achievement." Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 2000. Walsh, Kate and Christopher O. Tracy. "Increasing the Odds: How Good Policies Can Yield Better Teachers." edited by National Council on Teacher Quality, 1-11.
  17. "Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change." Pew Research Center, 2010. Available at http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2010/10/millennials-confident-connected-open-to-change.pdf
  18. Miller, Raegen. "Redefining Teacher Pensions." Center for American Progress, 2011. Available at http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/09/pdf/teacher_pension_reform.pdf
  19. Costrell, Robert, and Michael Podgursky. "Distribution of Benefits in the Teacher Retirement Systems and Their Implications for Mobility" American Education Finance Association, 2010. Available at http://web.missouri.edu/~podgurskym/articles/files/EDFP_a_00015.pdf
  20. Vigdor, Jacob. "Scrap the Sacrosanct Salary Schedule," Education Next 8 (4), 2008. Available at http://educationnext.org/scrap-the-sacrosanct-salary-schedule/
  21. Costrell, Robert, and Michael Podgursky. "Reforming K-12 Educator Pensions: A Labor Market Perspective." TIAA-CREFF Institute, 2011. Available at http://www1.tiaa-cref.org/institute/research/briefs/institute_pb_reforming_K-12_educator_pensions.html
  22. Costrell and Podgursky, 2010.
  23. Rivkin, Steven G., Eric A. Hanushek, and John F. Kain. "Teachers, schools, and academic achievement." Econometrica 73, 2004.
  24. Goldhaber and Brewer, 2000.
  25. Chingos, Matthew M., and Paul E. Peterson. "It's Easier to Pick a Good Teacher Than to Train One: Familiar and New Results on the Correlates of Teacher Effectiveness." Economics of Education Review, June 2011.
  26. Miller, Raegen, and Marguerite Roza. "The Sheepskin Effect and Student Achievement. Center for American Progress." July 2012. Available at http://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/issues/2012/07/pdf/miller_ masters.pdf
  27. Ritter, Gary, Marc Holley, Nathan Jensen, Brent Riffel, Marcus Winters, Joshua Barnett, and Jay Greene. "Year Two Evaluation of the Achievement Challenge Pilot Project in the Little Rock Public School District." University of Arkansas, Department of Education Reform, 2008. Neal, D. "The Design of Performance Pay in Education." NBER Working Paper 16710, January 2011. Fryer, Roland G., Steven D. Levitt, John List, and Sally Sadoff. "Enhancing the Efficacy of Teacher Incentives through Loss Aversion: A Field Experiment". National Bureau of Economics Working Paper No. 18237, 2012. Lincove, Jane A. "Can Teacher Incentive Pay Improve Student Performance on Standardized Tests?" Paper presented at the Association for Education Finance and Policy 37th Annual Conference, Boston, Massachusetts, March 15-17 2012. Available at http://www.aefpweb.org/sites/default/files/webform/Lincove%20AEFP%20Paper.pdf
  28. Rothwell, Jonathan. "Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools." Metropolitan Policy Program, The Brookings Institution, 2012.
  29. Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). "Charter School Performance in Indiana." Stanford University, December 2012.
  30. Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). "Charter School Performance in New Jersey." Stanford University, November 2012.
  31. Abdulkadiroglu, Atila, Josh Angrist, Sarah Cohodes, Susan Dynarski, Jon Fullerton, Thomas Kane, and Parag Pathak. "Informing the Debate: Comparing Boston's Charter, Pilot and Traditional Schools." The Boston Foundation. January 2009. Available at http://www.gse.harvard.edu/~pfpie/pdf/InformingTheDebate_Final.pdf Hoxby, Corline M., Sonali Murraraka, and Jenny Kang. "How New York City's Charter Schools Affect Achievement." New York City Charter Schools Evaluation Project, September 2009.
  32. Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). "Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States." Stanford University, June 2009.
  33. "Charter School Performance Accountability." National Association of Charter School Authorizers, September 2009. Available at http://www.qualitycharters.org/images/stories/Performance_Accountability.pdf Osborne, David. "Improving Charter School Accountability: The Challenge of Closing Failing Schools." Progressive Policy Institute, 2012. Available at http://progressivepolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/06.2012- Osborne_Improving-Charter-School-Accountability_The-Challenge-of-Closing-Failing-Schools.pdf
  34. Chingos, Matthew M., and Paul E. Peterson. "The Effects of School Vouchers on College Enrollment: Experimental Evidence from New York City." Brown Center on Education Policy, Brookings Institution, 2012. Peterson, Paul E. "School Vouchers in DC Produce Gains in Both Test Scores and Graduation Rates." EducationNext, June 26, 2010.
  35. Forster, Greg. "A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Vouchers." Friedman Foundation, 2011. Available at http://www.edchoice.org/research/reports/a-win-win-solution--the-empirical-evidence-on-school-vouchers.aspx

Topics: Parent Empowerment, Teacher Evaluation, Teacher Pay