Study: Sometimes, teacher turnover is a good thing
On the whole, because of the strong positive effect of exiting low-performing teachers, turnover under IMPACT led to an improvement in average student achievement, the study found.
Jason Kamras, chief of human capital for D.C. Public Schools, said the findings are exciting because they are the first independent evidence “that our districtwide effort to increase teacher quality has led to big increases in student learning” when weak teachers leave.
“To see that effect — particularly to see it play out in high-poverty schools, where it’s needed the most — I think it’s really powerful,” Kamras said.
Still, the results do not fit neatly into any of education reform’s warring camps.
The study lends credence to the idea that using student test scores to identify and remove poor teachers, as IMPACT does, is an effective strategy for improving the quality of the teaching force. But the results also bolster critic complaints that — to the extent that IMPACT creates a stressful working environment that drives good teachers away — it could undermine the goal of improving teacher quality.
“The high stakes associated with IMPACT have been controversial, both within the District of Columbia, as well as in broader discussions of education policy,” the four authors, researchers at the University of Virginia and Stanford, wrote. “There are elements of both sides of this debate in our estimates.”
Introduced in 2009 by then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee, IMPACT was among the first evaluation systems in the nation to judge teachers in part according to their students’ progress on tests. It also was one of the first, and is still one of the few, to reward teachers who do well (with substantial bonuses) and punish those who do poorly (with termination or the threat of it).
D.C. Public Schools officials, along with some education observers nationally, credit that approach with helping city schools make relatively rapid progress on national math and reading exams, as compared with other big cities.
But other education experts, and some D.C. teachers, say IMPACT unfairly penalizes teachers who work in the most challenging high-poverty schools. And they say hooking a teacher’s pay and livelihood to student test scores and surprise classroom observations can make the job so stressful and unpleasant that excellent teachers decide to leave.
“We must be careful that IMPACT is not forcing good teachers out of our lowest-performing schools,” Michelle Lee, a math teacher at Cardozo Education Campus, told D.C. Council members in December 2013, not long after the time period examined by the new study. “The stress and paranoia I feel on a daily basis . . . is frankly too much.”
DCPS surveys of exiting high performers show that they most often leave for personal reasons, Kamras said, such as a spouse getting a new job or a family member falling ill. IMPACT isn’t even among the top 10 reasons they depart, he said.
The departure of teachers who were rated “ineffective” or “minimally effective” on IMPACT had a significant positive effect on student achievement, according to the study, equivalent to an additional one-third to two-thirds of a year of student learning in math and somewhat less in reading.
“That’s four months of learning in reading and math,” Kamras said. “There are few educational interventions that have had that kind of impact on student learning.”
The effect of losing “effective” and “highly effective” teachers was negative but far less dramatic. Researchers said it was not statistically significant. But these high performers comprised nearly two-thirds of all D.C. teachers who departed in any given year: 13 percent of them left each year, on average.
Low-performing teachers in the District were three times more likely to leave: 46 percent left in any given year.
“Losing 13 percent of the best teachers each year places strong demands on teacher recruitment to prevent a reduction in achievement in those classrooms,” the study said. “However, exiting 46 percent of low-performing teachers creates substantial opportunity to improve achievement in the classrooms of low-performing teachers.”
The District’s overall teacher turnover during the period of study was 18 percent, higher than the average of 13 percent in large urban school districts, according to another recent study.
Since the period of the study, the D.C. school system has tried to reduce the stress that IMPACT causes, giving less weight to test scores and cutting back on classroom observations of highly rated teachers.
The seniors in Brian Tonsoni’s economics class at Delphi Community High School are no strangers to technology — everybody has an Internet-connected laptop or smartphone in front of them in class as they work on business plans.
“We made a company, and so we are selling scarves,” says Hannah Napier.
Team member Abby Price says their group has come up with a slogan as edgy as her high-tech classroom: “Don’t be an ascot, get a scarf.”
Students laugh, and Tonsoni says, “Now, you’re pushing the envelope … ”
He has taught at Delphi, about 70 miles northeast of Indianapolis near Lafayette, for nine years. He likes the fact that his lessons — many of which he’s translated to podcasts — are usable even when the weather gets in the way.
“This group, we had great participation,” Tonsoni says. “We got into a 30-minute discussion on winners and losers in the economic system of America — on a snow day, from my recliner.”
Student Isaac Miller says he and his classmates are so plugged in outside of school that e-learning doesn’t feel that different — though, he admits, it doesn’t work for every class.
“It’s really tough in like a math class, for the high-level math classes, because some of that stuff you can’t just learn by yourself,” Isaac says. “You have to have the teacher there. You have to be in the classroom.”
Each student in Delphi schools either owns a computer or is provided one by the district. There’s a pile of laptops in the corner of Tonsoni’s room waiting to be taken home if it appears the next day’s weather will be bad.
Superintendent Ralph Walker says it’s a way to ensure students don’t fall behind in their studies. And there’s another upside: E-learning helps some shy students.
“I think it takes away, maybe, that embarrassment that you’re going to ask a bad question or somebody’s going to laugh at you because you’ve asked the question,” Walker says.
But he admits there is a point of diminishing returns, which he noticed during a recent string of snow days.
“You know, the first day we had about 100 percent of the kids involved in e-learning,” Walker says. “Well, then, after the fourth day, we were down to about 55 percent of the children.”
On the fifth snow day, Walker gave kids and teachers a free pass: No e-learning today.
For the roughly 15 percent of kids in the district who don’t have access to the Internet, Delphi schools try to provide assignments on paper in anticipation of a snow day. But there’s also the issue of troubleshooting each student’s tech, Brian Tonsoni says.
“One snow day, a student said, ‘I can’t open up your podcast — your audio podcast — on my iPhone,’ ” Tonsoni recalls. “So I was troubleshooting, and I ended up having to make a video podcast instead that could play on iPhones, because I want every possible device available.”
But tech issues aside, it’s clear Tonsoni’s seniors like the modern approach to learning. It caters to the way they already consume information — and it means they don’t have to make up as many days as they wait for summer vacation.
A version of this story was published on NPR’s All Tech Considered in February 2015.
Spending in nation’s schools falls again, with wide variation across states
Spending continued to vary widely across the country, from a low of $6,432 per student in Utah to a high of $20,530 per student in the District of Columbia. The biggest spenders were largely clustered in the Northeast, while the lowest were in the West and Southeast.
The national average was $10,763, down 0.6 percent compared with 2012, adjusting for inflation.
That decline was less dramatic than the 3 percent drop the year before, but it shows that, in many places, funding for public education has not rebounded as the economy recovered from the Great Recession.
Twenty states saw per-pupil spending decline by 1 percent or more in the 2012-2013 school year, and some saw much larger decreases. In Oregon and West Virginia, per-pupil spending fell more than 4 percent, and it dropped more than 3 percent in Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Louisiana and Rhode Island.
Nationally, per-pupil spending climbed steadily by at least 1 percent per year from 1996 to 2008, when the nation began to feel the effects of the housing market crash and, subsequently, the recession. Spending hit a plateau and then fell more than 1 percent in 2011.
Per-pupil spending is “the gold standard in school finance,” said Stephen Cornman, of the National Center for Education Statistics, which produced the analysis. The three-year decline after such a long period of rising expenditures is “significant,” he said.
The new federal data were released on the heels of a report by the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities showing that state governments in at least 31 states are contributing less to public education than they did in 2008, before the recession.
“Our country’s future depends crucially on the quality of its schools, yet rather than raising K-12 funding to support proven reforms such as hiring and retaining excellent teachers, reducing class sizes, and expanding access to high-quality early education, many states have headed in the opposite direction,” the nonprofit’s report said. “These cuts weaken schools’ capacity to develop the intelligence and creativity of the next generation of workers and entrepreneurs.”
State funding accounts for about 45 percent of schools’ revenue, and it declined two-tenths of a percent in 2013 compared with the year before, according to the new federal data. Federal spending on education dropped more dramatically — by nearly 10 percent — as the last of the federal economic stimulus dollars dried up.
In contrast, local governments ponied up nearly 1 percent more for education in 2013 than in 2012. But in most states, local governments depend on property taxes to raise money for education, which means that poor communities have less wherewithal than affluent ones to fill budget holes.
The National Center for Education Statistics also released spending figures Wednesday for the 100 largest school districts in the nation. The numbers ranged from $5,539 per pupil in Utah’s Alpine School District to $20,331 in New York City. After New York, the highest-spending large districts were in Boston, Philadelphia and Anchorage.
Four of the 11 highest-spending large districts were in the Washington area, reflecting the region’s relative wealth and high cost of living. Montgomery County was ranked fifth, spending $15,080 per student; Howard County was seventh, at $14,884; Prince George’s County was ninth, at $14,101; and Fairfax County was 11th, at $13,670.
Baltimore City schools ranked sixth, spending $15,050 per student. The D.C. school system is not among the nation’s 100 largest.
Below is a list of per-pupil spending by state, from highest to lowest:
|District of Columbia||$20,530|