Assessing How Policy Affects Teacher Quality: Prop A

July 08, 2011

Heather Hough

Analyses of the Quality Teacher and Education Act (QTEA), from its inception to its impact, is an example of a collaborative project that informs district-level policy. The goals are to understand how a new California state measure is impacting teacher effectiveness and to help the district figure out how it may implement that measure effectively. In June 2008, San Francisco voters passed QTEA, also known as Proposition A, authorizing SFUSD to collect $198 per parcel of taxable property over the next 20 years. Part of that money is being applied to teacher compensation programs, including extra pay for teachers in difficult-to-staff schools and difficult-to-fill subject areas. The funds will help address a long-standing problem: the exceedingly low salaries of San Francisco teachers and the negative effect that has had on teacher quality.

Doctoral student Heather Hough (BA ’02), Professor Susanna Loeb, and Professor (Research) David Plank at Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) have been collaborating with the district to document the passage of this policy. Their research has looked at what it took to induce the broader public to open its purse strings, and how the district and the teachers’ union consulted, negotiated, and compromised to determine how those funds were to be used.

In the first phase of the research, Hough identified a number of lessons for other districts interested in seeking additional funds to raise teacher salaries or introduce new systems of teacher compensation or support as a mean of improving teacher quality. “These include things like starting early to allow for bargaining time with all of the competing interests, being willing to compromise to pursue shared goals, and engaging the community early to build political and financial support,” she says. Nancy Waymack, SFUSD’s executive director of policy and operations observes, “The formal partnership with Stanford allows for much easier sharing of the information with coworkers and other districts that are eager to know how we helped get the measure passed.”

Hough is now leading the research team in conducting a three-year evaluation of Prop A’s impact, focusing on how QTEA is being used to improve the teacher workforce. Combining analysis of the district’s administrative data with original data collection, the team is looking specifically at the recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers, the overall raising of teachers’ skill levels, and the strategic removal of less effective teachers.

Reflecting on the data, Hough notes, “In a very challenging policy climate, QTEA implementation is off to a good start, but there are definitely areas for improvement.” As to retention, the study has revealed that salary increases seem to have had a positive effect: In 2010, fewer teachers reported planning to leave within five years than in 2008. Of those who planned to leave, salary was less of a reason than in previous years. However, bonuses have so far not led to an increase in transfers to hard-to-staff schools.

When it comes to supporting and removing underperforming teachers, QTEA includes provisions aimed at changing the district’s Peer Assistance and Review program (PAR) by increasing teacher support and accountability. “There’s a general sense among stakeholders that changes in this regard may be the most meaningful aspect of Proposition A,” says Hough. Revisions to the program will offer easier entry for teachers: Based on analyses of the data, a decision was made to allow teachers with “needs improvement” ratings as well as “unsatisfactory” ratings to be referred, enabling more of them to get support. At the same time, the standard for successful completion after PAR has been raised, meaning that under-performing teachers may be moved to dismissal more easily. Furthermore, teachers who have successfully participated in PAR before will be moved to dismissal if referred again.

In the area of teacher development, Proposition A includes a program that allows release time for those identified as “master teachers” to support approximately 200 of their colleagues, particularly newer instructors. While the concept has a great deal of potential for improving teacher quality, so far it has been awkward in practice. “Because of problems with program rollout, the selection of master teachers was not ideal,” says Hough. “The culture in schools has sometimes not been welcoming of the master teacher role, and master teachers themselves have been struggling with what their new position entails. Many think that the presence of such identified individuals has not been particularly useful.”

Overall, then, the CEPA study is pointing to a few areas for course correction if SFUSD wants Prop A to result in the dramatic effects hoped for in raising the level of the teacher workforce. “This project has been a huge undertaking involving taxpayer funds that are connected to goals of increasing student achievement. The collaboration with Stanford has been indispensable in helping us to make sure dollars are put effectively toward advancing that goal,” says Nancy Waymack. “Having a respected external voice gives us unbiased expert weigh-in about how we’re doing. It allows for frank and important conversations among constituents that help us make sure plans are moving forward or to figure out what we need to revamp.

Stanford is also stepping in with other types of support, as well. On the master teachers front, for example, because individuals identified for such roles typically have no training in guiding other teachers, CSET is planning a program that will help master teachers and their principals develop coaching skills.

“This is really important research that’s driving our decisions,” Waymack emphasizes, “and we certainly hope Stanford will be around for as many of the twenty years that QTEA will be in effect as possible.”