Do low school grades drive away good teachers?

Grading schools on student performance is supposed to improve education by giving teachers and administrators an incentive to do better. But it could be having the opposite effect.

That’s one conclusion to draw from research by education economists Tim Sass, Lin Feng and David Figlio. Looking at data for Florida schools, they found teachers were more likely to leave schools that received Fs in the state’s grading system. And effective teachers were especially likely to leave.

Sass, a professor in Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, talked about the research last week at an Economics of Education Seminar at Indiana University Bloomington. “It’s really that scarlet letter F for a school that seems to impact teacher decisions,” Sass said.

Florida was the first state to adopt the now common practice of giving schools letter grades based on student performance and/or improvement on standardized tests. It started in 1999, when Jeb Bush was governor. Indiana got on board with letter grades a couple of years ago.

Sass, Feng and Figlio keyed their research to a 2002 change in the Florida grading system, which meant schools couldn’t precisely anticipate what their grades would be. The result was that some were “shocked” into lower categories than school personnel had reason to expect. Consequently, the researchers could isolate the impact of the grades from other school-related factors.

Their data show that teachers are always more likely to leave low-performing schools. But in the year of “grade shock,” teacher mobility was even higher in schools that received an F, suggesting the grade itself was influencing teachers to move to higher-performing Florida schools or leave the profession.

Teachers were more likely to leave if, according to the researchers’ calculations, they had high “value-added” scores –if they were effective at improving students’ test scores. (Ineffective teachers were apt to stay put). And if there’s anything struggling schools need, it’s to keep their best teachers.

Sass said the effect of an F grade on teacher mobility was greater in high schools and middle schools than in elementary schools. And it was greater for teachers of core academic subjects, such as math, English and social studies, than for PE, music and art teachers.

An earlier National Bureau of Economic Research working paper from the same study is available here,

What’s the lesson to take from the research? For one thing, beware of unintended consequences. Advocates of school grades no doubt think they’re doing what’s best for kids. But to the extent they make it less likely the best teachers will teach in the worst schools, they’re not.

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4 thoughts on “Do low school grades drive away good teachers?

  1. If middle class parents see a low grade slapped on a school — even though that grade can oversimplify and distort the reality of the school — they usually won’t bother to check it out.
    They will not enroll their kids.

    Then the school can’t attract middle class families that are the mainstay of extracurriculars and sports and fund raising.

    When districts label schools, they drive away good families and teachers.

    • I’m so glad my sons graduated (2007 and 2010) before all this nonsense really took root. I’d like to think I would have stayed the course and kept them in their “failing” public school, but who knows…

      …Actually, there’s no way my wife and I would have bailed on the public school system. I hope the same is true of the good teachers my sons had in most of their classes.

  2. Well… if a school is getting an “F,” the fear is that it will eventually close… so I’d bet many of the effective teachers (who plan(ned) on making teaching a career) are just looking for a place where they’ll have some stability… the older a teacher gets, the less likely s/he will be hired, because a Masters + 20 is more expensive than a Bachelor’s + 10… so looking down the road… if my school continues to earn these “F’s,” I’ll be out pounding the pavement looking for work when I SHOULD have been in the prime of my career…. at least that’s one of the many reasons why I am looking to leave my “failing” school.

  3. Pingback: Math for America president: ‘Value-added’ flawed, but advocates won’t let go | School Matters

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