Performance Screens for School Improvement: The Case of Teacher Tenure Reform in New York City

This very timely new study out of CALDER examines whether a tenure-reform policy initiated in New York City in 2009–10 impacted the rate at which tenure was awarded and the composition of the teaching force. The study tracked the tenure review process for all probationary teachers in NYC public schools between 2007–08 and 2012–13. (In New York state, teachers are eligible for tenure after completing their third year in the classroom.) The gist of the reform was this: starting in 2009, principals had to provide a rationale of why they were recommending or denying tenure for a probationary teacher if the evidence ran counter to the principal’s recommendation. Such evidence included value-added data, student and teacher work products, classroom-observation data, colleagues’ feedback, etc. Further, principals received “guidance” from the district that suggested under which conditions a teacher’s tenure approval might be in jeopardy, including having an unsatisfactory annual rating or persistently low value-added scores. What happened as a result? Three things: First, the rate of tenure approval dropped from 94 percent in the two years prior to the policy’s introduction to 56 percent three years after it was implemented. Yet nearly all of the decrease was because teachers’ tenure decisions were extended. (An extension allows a teacher to keep her job, sans tenure.) Those denied tenure increased just marginally from 2 percent pre-policy to 3 percent post-policy. Second, being “extended” significantly increased the likelihood that a teacher would transfer schools or exit the NYC system altogether. Further, extended teachers who actually transferred or exited were less effective than those likely to replace them. Third, and finally, schools with more black students were more likely to extend tenure—and given that those teachers are also more likely to leave and be replaced with more effective teachers, this is a good thing for kids. So in short, prodding principals to make evidence-based tenure decisions pays off—and it doesn’t require a change in state law (or a Vergara-style lawsuit)!

SOURCE: Susanna Loeb, Luke C. Miller, and James Wyckoff, “Performance Screens for School Improvement: The Case of Teacher Tenure Reform in New York City,” Working Paper 115 (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, June 2014).

Amber M. Northern, Ph.D.
Amber M. Northern, Ph.D. is the Senior Vice President for Research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.