Can school accountability policies improve working conditions?

A-to-F school rating systems have come under fire in Ohio and remain a hotly debated topic elsewhere. Proponents usually argue that they provide clear information that parents and communities can easily digest, while also motivating schools to improve. Critics often claim that such blunt ratings could damage schools’ reputations or demoralize educators should they receive poor grades. But what does the research have to say?

A recent study by Rebecca Dizon-Ross examines the impacts of A–F school accountability in New York City (NYC) on teacher turnover and quality, as estimated by value added measures. Under the leadership of former mayor Michael Bloomberg and school chancellor Joel Klein, NYC began in fall 2007 to assign A–F school grades and link low ratings to consequences. Prior research has already shown that these accountability reforms led to higher student achievement, with gains concentrated among children attending low-rated schools. Dizon-Ross studies teacher workforce patterns in 2008–09 and 2009–10 and uses a regression discontinuity design that focuses on schools near letter grade cutoffs to gauge the effects of receiving lower accountability ratings.

The analysis finds that NYC’s policy reforms reduced teacher turnover and likely increased teacher quality among the city’s lowest rated schools. Schools barely falling into the F (versus D) and D (versus C) categories had turnover rates that were 3 percentage points lower than schools on the other side of the cutoffs. Dizon-Ross calls this reduction a “large effect,” considering that turnover rates are typically 10 to 20 percent in NYC schools. Meanwhile, the teacher quality findings are deemed only “suggestive evidence” due to the small number of teachers with value added scores. Nevertheless, the analysis uncovers quality improvements among teachers who joined lower-rated schools. Since there were no effects on the quality of teachers who left those schools, the result is a net positive impact on quality. The positive findings apply to schools at the bottom of the rating distribution—where the accountability “bite” is strongest—with null results generally found among schools at the top (A or B).

Why would teachers want to work at lower-rated schools? To answer this question, Dizon-Ross examines teacher survey responses that cover a range of issues, including school leadership, professional development, and parental engagement. Based on an analysis of these data, she concludes that strong, supportive principals drove reductions in turnover and higher teacher quality. She writes, “this [analysis] suggests that low grades encouraged principals to work harder at their jobs and that teachers appreciated these changes.”

Despite the outcries around A–F ratings that carry consequences for poor performance, research from NYC and Florida show that such systems benefit students. Now this study indicates that accountability pressures can improve working conditions by incentivizing principals to put more effort into employee retention and recruitment. Given these empirical findings, it’s worth asking: What’s not to like about school accountability?

SOURCE: Rebecca Dizon-Ross, How Does School Accountability Affect Teachers? Evidence from New York City, National Bureau of Economic Research (2018).

Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.