Headlines this year have largely focused on teacher pay. But just a few years ago, a different set of teacher-policy issues were in the limelight, including teacher evaluation, tenure, and collective bargaining. At that time, states were pursuing aggressive reforms challenging decades-old laws that many viewed as more protective of educator jobs than promoting student learning. Though not all of these efforts yielded dramatic changes, Florida eliminated tenure for new teachers starting in July 2011. Instead of facing extensive and often costly dismissal procedures, this reform allows school leaders to remove low performers from the classroom by not renewing annual teacher contracts.

In theory, removing tenure in K–12 education can both positively and negatively affect student achievement. On the one hand, it may increase achievement as teachers are incentivized to focus more intently on student learning, knowing their job is on the line each year. Over the long haul, the overall quality of the educator workforce may improve if incompetent teachers are removed more swiftly and frequently than they are today. On the other hand, school leaders may be prone to poor judgment and erroneously dismiss some effective teachers. Proponents of tenure also suggest that eliminating tenure—a job perk—might dissuade talented individuals from entering the profession, though it may also attract less ambitious people seeking job protections.

A new analysis from Celeste Carruthers, David Figlio, and Tim Sass puts theory to the test, examining whether Florida’s new employment law affected student achievement in the two years immediately following enactment (2011–12 and 2012–13). To undertake the study, the researchers divided Florida schools based on their exposure to the changes in state law, defined in two ways: More exposed schools either employed more first-year teachers or evaluated more of their educators. The first definition supposes that schools hiring more rookies would be more sensitive to the elimination of tenure for newly hired teachers. The latter definition rests on the fact that Florida made renewing annual contracts subject to teacher evaluations (most teachers were evaluated in the period of this analysis). The analysts then use quasi-experimental methods to compare state test-score trajectories, controlling for students’ prior achievement, of pupils attending the more- versus less-exposed schools.

The study finds slight upticks in achievement related to tenure reforms, with gains mainly concentrated among Florida’s lowest-achieving students. Students attending more-exposed schools gained about 0.005 to 0.010 standard deviations—significant statistically but small from a practical standpoint, akin to about a half-point gain on the SAT, according to the analysts. When results are disaggregated by students’ baseline achievement, pupils in the lowest two quintiles generally posted gains that exceeded those of their higher-achieving counterparts. Carruthers, Figlio, and Sass characterize the findings as “limited and circumstantial evidence that SSA [Florida’s teacher reforms] slightly increased student test achievement in math and reading.” 

The somewhat inconclusive and short-run results are unlikely to settle contentious national debates over teacher tenure in K–12 education. But the study does offer some tantalizing evidence that eliminating tenure protections—and perhaps stopping the ugly dance of the lemons—may benefit disadvantaged students. Though tenure laws are likely to endure in Ohio and many other states, policymakers should at least reappraise whether making it almost impossible to dismiss low performers makes sense for children in need of an excellent education. 

SOURCE: Celeste Carruthers, David Figlio, and Tim Sass, “Did Tenure Reform in Florida Affect Student Test Scores?,” Brookings Institution (2018).

Aaron Churchill is the Ohio research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where he has worked since 2012. In this role, Aaron oversees a portfolio of research projects aimed at strengthening education policy in Ohio. He also writes regularly on Fordham’s blog, the Ohio Gadfly Daily, and contributes analytic support for…

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