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Involuntary teacher transfers can improve school performance, Stanford researchers say

June 25, 2014
By Andrew Myers
Stanford Professor Susanna Loeb (Photo: Linda A. Cicero)
Stanford Professor Susanna Loeb (Photo: Linda A. Cicero)
A study of Miami-Dade's transfer policy suggests that moving poor-performing teachers into better schools improves equity.

The ability to move teachers, against their wishes, to a different school is a necessary tool, argue school and district leaders, to improve teacher performance and get the right mix of teachers across a district.

But forced transfers remain hotly contested, and critics say the policies only shuffle ineffective teachers to new schools or place them in situations where their skills are underused.

A recent study co-authored by Stanford Graduate School of Education Professor Susanna Loeb examined involuntary teacher transfer in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the nation’s fourth largest school district.

The study found that the policy benefited schools in Miami-Dade, with gains shown in student test scores and teacher attendance, suggesting that involuntary teacher transfer can improve performance and parity across districts if done strategically.

“Administrators have long argued that assigning teachers to schools is necessary for improving both overall school quality and equity, and this study supports that contention,” said Loeb, the Barnett Family Professor of Education. “The lower performing schools got rid of less effective teachers and replaced them with better teachers.”

The study is among three recent research projects by Loeb and colleagues looking at policy and practice of school leadership. The others examined whether student test scores were an effective way to evaluate principals and if principal time in classrooms benefited student performance. Each study used data sets provided by Miami-Dade through a partnership with the district.

The teacher transfer research was published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. The study covered the three school years from 2009-2012. During that period, principals transferred about 375 low-performing teachers to different district schools.

The study looked at numerous aspects of the involuntary transfers, including which schools transferred and received teachers, which teachers were transferred, what their performance was before and after the transfer, and how the teachers who replaced them performed in their steads.

In particular, Loeb and her co-authors focused on teacher absences and student test performance. Before they were transferred, the poor-performing teachers were less effective in math and reading instruction, and missed more work than their peers.

The study found that attendance of the transferred teachers improved significantly in their new schools, by an average of two fewer missed days per teacher per year. Their replacement teachers, likewise, showed improvements in attendance and in student test scores, especially in reading.

“Attendance is a positive indicator of performance. Other existing research shows that student learning increases when their full-time teachers aren’t absent. These decreases in absenteeism push the scales toward a net improvement in teacher productivity,” Loeb said.

The reduction in missed time, she believes, is an indication both that the transferred teachers have not given up on themselves, and perhaps, the change of scenery helped.

The study also found no evidence of the so-called “dance of the lemons,” in which poor-performing teachers are shuffled among the worst schools, doing little to improve performance of the teachers or the schools.

The district took a different tack, moving the low-performing teachers not to other lagging schools, but up the ladder to better performing schools. This, Loeb said, was key to improving equity among schools.

“It doesn’t make sense, and it wouldn’t be fair to the students of the lesser-performing schools, to merely shuffle these teachers between the worst schools,” said Loeb, who also is the faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis.

How the transferred teachers fared in value added to their new schools proved more elusive, however. These teachers looked worse relative to their peers at the new schools in measurements of their students’ achievement, particularly in math, but such a difference cannot necessarily be tied to a drop in teacher performance. It could just as likely be that they don’t look as good in comparison with the better performance of their new peers in the higher performing schools.

“Overall, I think the big message of this study is that there are ways for administrators to help lower performing schools. There are things within their power that can help,” Loeb said. “Miami-Dade’s involuntary transfer policy certainly improved equity among schools.”

Loeb’s co-authors included GSE alum Jason Grissom, an assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, and Nathaniel Nakashima, a doctoral candidate at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. It was funded with a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences.

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Andrew Myers is a freelance writer who frequently covers scientific and academic research.