Uncle Sam shouldn't try to manage school staffing

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Article Highlights

  • Can Washington truly define an "effective" teacher and more so, should they?

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  • Ill-conceived #edreform policies could move teachers away from schools and classrooms where they are effective

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  • Heavy-handed #edreforms to reallocate teachers could drive good teachers from the profession.

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  • We are far less able to identify "effective" teachers in a cookie-cutter fashion than federal officials might think. #edreform

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Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been charged by critics, spanning from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to anti-school reform icon Diane Ravitch, with trying to turn the U.S. Department of Education into a “national school board.”  The charge has much merit.

The Obama administration has used its Race to the Top program and unprecedented, far-reaching conditions for states seeking “waivers” from the No Child Left Behind Act’s most destructive requirements as excuses to micromanage what states are doing on teacher evaluation, school turnarounds, and much else.  In a new, particularly troubling twist, the administration has announced that states will henceforth have to ensure that “effective” teachers are distributed in a manner Uncle Sam deems equitable.

On the one hand, sensible steps to encourage district and union officials to get more effective teachers in high-poverty schools is obviously a good thing. That said, skepticism is warranted when considering Uncle Sam's ability to start telling states where to assign teachers. There are three particular concerns.  Ill-conceived policies might move teachers from schools and classrooms where they are effective to situations when they are less effective.  Heavy-handed efforts to reallocate teachers could drive good teachers from the profession. And we are far less able to identify "effective" teachers in any cookie-cutter fashion than federal officials might think.

First, efforts to redistribute effective teachers may shift teachers from schools and classrooms where they are effective to environments where they will be less effective. The skills and expertise that make a teacher effective in one school or with one population may not necessarily transfer to another.  There is good reason to think, as Florida International University's Lisa Delpit has noted, that the skills which make a teacher effective with proficient, affluent students will not necessarily translate to schools serving disadvantaged populations. Many have observed that the highly structured learning strategies employed successfully with low-income students by “no excuses” charter school providers would be far less welcome in other environs.

There is good reason to believe that teacher effectiveness isn’t absolute, but may depend on context. Scholars including Swarthmore College's Tom Dee and Stanford University's Eric Hanushek have reported, for instance, that students appear to benefit from having a teacher of the same race, suggesting that the matching of teachers and students contributes to the pattern of overall achievement gains.  To the extent that teacher effectiveness is partly a function of some teachers being better suited for some students, schools, and contexts, efforts to redistribute teachers without attending to context could readily reduce the overall quality of teaching. This does not counsel against finding ways to steer teachers to disadvantaged schools; it does suggest that such efforts should be carefully designed and executed with an appreciation for local context, which means they probably should not be guided by broad legislative directives emanating from Washington.

Second, ill-conceived efforts to move seemingly effective teachers from low-poverty to higher-poverty schools may prompt more of them to leave the profession at higher rates. The consequence would be to push out exactly those teachers we most want to retain. The University of Pennsylvania's Richard Ingersoll has observed that teachers in high-poverty schools are almost twice as likely to leave teaching as teachers in medium-poverty schools.  RAND researchers have similarly noted that "schools with higher proportions of minority, low-income, and low-performing students tended to have higher attrition rates."  It would seem a self-defeating, short-sighted strategy to systematically shift effective teachers to the schools where they are most likely to leave the profession. Again, avoiding unintended consequences requires that remedies be pursued with careful attentions to incentives, retention, and context.

Third, determining the allocation of "effective" teachers in a given school is more difficult than the Obama administration might wish.  Value-added scores in reading and math do have real value, but they are a limited, highly imperfect tool.  Even in 2015, when the new waiver rules take effect, such scores will only be available for reading and math, but not for any other area of instruction.  While value-added calculations are useful, the results are rough and proximate; they do not provide clear or stable guidance for large-scale efforts to reassign teachers.  And there are real questions about whether it makes sense to equate effectiveness at moving math and reading proficiency with broader instructional excellence.

The desire to more equitably distribute effective teachers is an admirable one. But effective teaching is first and foremost a challenge of increasing the total number of good teachers. The desire to more evenly distribute effective teachers is laudable, but the feds should take care not to accidentally undermine successful schools, compromise teacher effectiveness, or drive good teachers from the profession.

Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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