Teacher Turnover, Tenure Policies, and the Distribution of Teacher Quality: Can High-Poverty Schools Catch a Break?

Ben Hoffman

This comprehensive report neatly summarizes what we know about
teacher effectiveness, turnover, distribution, and tenure--and their
relation to the overrepresentation of low quality teachers in high
poverty schools. Miller and Chait start off by examining the concept of
teacher quality, arguing that traditional qualifications and licensure
matter far less than value-added measures and experience. While allowing
that value-added measures aren't perfect, they note that these are "at
least as good as subjective ratings made by principals, at least where
the very most effective and very least effective teachers are
concerned." A noteworthy point, considering that it's often this same
principal subjectivity that tenure advocates cite as justifying tenure
in the first place. Next up is teacher turnover. Miller and Chait build
the case that not only are high-quality teachers distributed unevenly
thanks to poor working conditions, HR practices, and personal
preferences, but that teacher turnover patterns exacerbate the
disparity. "Effectiveness breeds contentment," they say, i.e. effective
teachers are more likely to stay put. But high-poverty schools often
have fewer effective teachers to begin with, and the good ones often
leave quickly for better schools or other lines of work. Why? In this
realm, opposites do not attract. Good teachers want to work
alongside other good teachers, and teachers generally seek schools where
they share "an ethnic or cultural affinity." Thus, "a vicious cycle" is
born wherein bad schools attract fewer effective teachers and then lose
them to better schools, making it ever harder to attract the next crop
of talent. Ineffective teachers, meanwhile, are passed around like hot
potatoes by bad schools, since tenure makes it difficult to fire them.
The authors don't engage in an all-out attack on tenure but do urge
policymakers to reexamine present policies. "The role that tenure
policies play in preserving a skewed distribution of teacher quality
cannot be ignored," they conclude. Indeed. The full report is here.

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