Weaker Teachers Leaving Schools Under N.Y.C.'s Tenure Changes

June 15, 2014

By Stephen Sawchuk

After New York City encouraged principals to be more deliberative in awarding tenure, ineffective teachers were more likely to leave schools or the profession voluntarily—to the benefit of students, according to a recently released working paper.

Even though the overall percentage of teachers actually denied tenure did not change much, the more-rigorous process appears to have reshaped the workforce—suggesting that changes in practice rather than underlying tenure laws, may bear fruit, said Susanna Loeb, a Stanford University professor and one of the study's authors.

"Within current tenure laws, there's quite a bit of flexibility that districts aren't using in order to improve their workforce. This did not require a change in the law; it simply required a change in practice," Loeb said. "It wasn't necessarily greeted warmly by everyone involved, but you didn't need a court case or legislative change to change practice, and I think that's true in a number of places."

The paper comes during a period of intense interest in tenure. A California judge recently struck down a teacher-tenure law in that state, and it is unclear whether the state legislature will seek modifications. Two other states—Florida and Kansas—have outlawed tenure; South Dakota, Idaho, and North Carolina have unsuccessfully tried to do so.

Yet there has been next to no empirical research on just how alterations in tenure laws affect student achievement.

The paper, issued earlier this week, examines an unusual change in New York City policy. In 2009-10, the city education department revised what had been a more or less automatic process of granting tenure. The district started supplying more data on teachers to principals, asking them to weigh performance observations, reviews of teachers' lesson plans, and in limited instances "value-added" data based on test scores. And it began requiring principals to justify their decisions about whether to grant or deny tenure—particularly if it didn't match up with the data. Principals could also extend the tenure decision for another year if they weren't ready to make a final call.

For the study, Loeb and her co-authors looked at tenure decisions made between 2010-11 and 2011-12, matching it to the demographics and SAT scores, and preparation routes of the teachers. Then, they looked at how those teachers performed either on observations or using a value-added method, controlling for student attributes.