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School Accountability and Teacher Mobility

Li Feng, David Figlio, Tim Sass
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Document date: June 16, 2010
Released online: June 16, 2010


This study is the first to exploit policy variation within the same state to examine the effects of school accountability on tacher job changes. Using student-level data from Florida State the authors measure the degree to which schools and teachers were "surprised" by the change in the school grading system (in summer of 2002)— what they refer to as an "accountability shock"— by observing the mobility decisions of teachers in the years before and after the school grading change. They find over half of all schools in the state experience an accountability "shock" due to this grading change. Also, teachers are more likely to leave schools facing increased accountability pressure— and even more likely to leave schools shocked downward to a grade of "F". They are less likely to leave schools facing decreased accountability pressure. Moreover, schools facing increased pressure experience an increase in the quality of teachers who leave or stay and schools with no accontability shock experience no significant change to the quality of teachers that leave or stay.

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School accountability —the process of evaluating schools on the basis of their students' performance and holding them responsible for this performance — is becoming an increasingly prevalent practice around the world. Accountability systems are intended to solve the principal-agent problem in education, andthe incentives that they provide to educators to improve student efficiency take several forms. These systems provide direct incentives, in the form of explicit rewards or sanctions associated with good or poor performance. Many of the mechanisms for improvement involve social pressure, since a school's constituents have both educational and financial reasons to influence low-performing schools to improve. The financial reasons derive from the fact that school accountability ratings tend to be capitalized into housing values (Figlio and Lucas 2004). In addition, school accountability affects a school's ability to raise voluntary contributions (Figlio and Kenny 2009). This paper makes use of detailed data at the individual teacher level to gauge the degree to which teachers respond to these direct and indirect forms of accountability pressure by leaving the high-pressure school.

There is certainly reason to believe that educators respond to accountability pressure through the ways in which they carry out their jobs. Early evidence concerning the effects of these accountability systems on student performance indicates they tend to improve the outcomes of lowperforming students (e.g., Chakrabarti 2007; Chiang 2009; Figlio and Rouse 2006; Jacob 2005; Rouse et al. 2007; West and Peterson 2006).1 However, Krieg (2008), Neal and Schanzenbach (2010) and Reback (2008) argue that the benefits of accountability pressures are concentrated in the more marginal students rather than the students whose performance would be far above or far below the performance thresholds set for the purposes of school accountability. That said, the weight of the evidence suggests that accountability systems have led schools to become more productive, at least along some measurable dimensions. Rouse et al. (2007) document a number of the ways in which accountability pressure has changed school instructional policies and practices in Florida's low-performing schools, and relate these instructional policy and practice changes to increased student performance.

Although teacher labor markets may be structured differently from other occupations, high turnover is certainly not a distinguishing feature. The data suggest that exit rates from teaching mirror those in non-teaching occupations (Stinebrickner (2002), Ballou and Podgursky (2002)). Consequently, disproportionate harm from the turnover of teachers must come from the character of that turnover rather than simply the level. Yet still, there remains little evidence on productivity differences between teachers who transition out of a school and those who remain.

In addition to actively changing policies and practices to improve student outcomes, schools have also responded to accountability pressures by engaging in apparently strategic behavior with questionable educational benefit. For instance, some schools have responded by differentially reclassifying low-achieving students as learning-disabled so that their scores will not count against the school in accountability systems (e.g., Cullen and Reback 2006; Figlio and Getzler 2007; Jacob 2005).2 Additionally, Figlio and Winicki (2005) suggest that Virginia schools facing accountability pressures altered their school nutrition programs on testing days to increase the likelihood that students would do well on the exams, and Figlio (2006) indicates that schools differentially suspend students at different points in the testing cycle in an apparent attempt to alter the composition of the testing pool. Jacob and Levitt (2003) find that teachers are more likely to cheat when faced with more accountability pressure. And the distributional effects documented by Neal and Schanzenbach (2010) and others are also evidence of strategic behavior on the part of schools. In sum, school accountability systems cause schools to behave differently, and school personnel almost certainly are very responsive to increased accountability pressure.

Of course, the individuals implementing the changes in instructional policies and practices are teachers, and school accountability therefore has the potential to influence the desirability of certain teaching jobs. Likewise, accountability may influence the willingness of schools to retain certain teachers. From a theoretical perspective, the effects of accountability pressures on the teacher labor market are ambiguous. On the demand side, in order to avoid sanctions and/or the stigma associated with being designated as a "failing" school, schools could increase their efforts to identify low-performing teachers and remove them from their classrooms. In this case, it is difficult to call these personnel changes a "job choice," at least from the perspective of the teacher. On the supply side, accountability pressure and associated changes in school policies could lower the net benefit of teaching in a school by reducing teacher discretion over curriculum or teaching methods. Likewise, the potential stigma from teaching in a "failing" school could lead some teachers to seek employment at other schools. On the other hand, the resources that often accompany sanctions (e.g. reading coaches, training for teachers, etc.) could reduce the non-monetary costs associated with working in lowperforming schools and actually increase teacher retention.

Similar patterns could be possible in the case of schools receiving high accountability marks. Schools that perform well under accountability systems face the pressure to maintain their high scores or to improve upon them. In Florida, for instance, schools receive extra bonus money for maintaining a top accountability score or for improving from one year to the next. Given that the housing market capitalization effects of school accountability are strongest in more affluent school areas (Figlio and Lucas 2004), coupled with the fact that measurement error in test scores introduces a significant degree of randomness into the school accountability ratings (Kane and Staiger 2002), it is reasonable to believe that relatively high-performing schools may face as much or more real accountability pressure as do low-performing schools.

Goldhaber and Hannaway (2004), in a case study of schools in Florida, find that teacher and administrator anxiety levels due to school accountability were highest in the high-performing schools, where school personnel felt the most pressure to maintain their accountability marks. Hence, while teaching in a highly-rated school has its advantages, the extra accountability pressure may deter teachers as well. And, just as with the low-rated schools, highly-rated schools may engage in more teacher selection as a consequence of accountability. Therefore, the theoretical expectations of how accountability pressures influence teacher job choice and/or placement are ambiguous for both highlyrated and low-rated schools.

A number of recent papers have analyzed the determinants of teacher mobility and attrition (Boyd et al. 2005, 2006, 2008; Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor 2010; Feng 2009; Hanushek, Kain, and Rivkin 2004; Imazeki 2004; Ingersoll 2001; Krieg 2006; Podgursky, Monroe, and Watson 2004; Scafidi, Sjoquist, and Stinebrickner 2007). However, the literature relating accountability pressures to teachers' labor market decisions has been much spottier. Boyd et al. (2005) explore the responses of teachers to the introduction of mandated state testing in New York State. They find that teacher turnover in fourth grade, the critical accountability year in New York, decreased following the introduction of testing, and that entrants into fourth grade were more likely to be experienced than had previously been the case. Clotfelter et al. (2004) evaluate how North Carolina's accountability system has influenced the ability of schools serving low-performing students to attract and retain high-quality teachers. They find that the introduction of the accountability system has exacerbated teacher turnover in these schools, though it is less evident that accountability has led to lower qualifications of the teachers serving low-performing students. Both of these papers carefully describe the accountability systems in their states, but because they evaluate accountability systems that affected all schools within a state, it is difficult to derive causal inference from their analyses.

In this paper, we exploit a major rule change in Florida's school accountability system that took place in the summer of 2002 to identify the effects of changing school accountability pressures on teacher job changes. Florida had graded every school in the state on a scale from "A" to "F" since the summer of 1999, based on proficiency rates in reading, writing and mathematics. In 2002, the state dramatically changed its grading system to both recalibrate the acceptable student proficiency levels for the purposes of school accountability and to introduce student-level changes as an important determinant of school grades. Using student-level micro-data to calculate the school grades that would have occurred absent this change, we demonstrate that over half of all schools in the state experienced an accountability "shock" due to this grading change, with some schools receiving a higher grade than they would have otherwise received and other schools receiving a lower grade than would have otherwise occurred. Furthermore, some schools were shocked downward to receive a grade of "F", which no school in the state had received in the prior year of grading. These grading shocks provide the vehicle for identification of accountability effects in this paper.

We apply these accountability shocks to data on the universe of public school teachers in Florida. We measure the effects of accountability pressures on teachers' decisions to stay at a given school; to move to another school in the same district; to move to another school district in the state; or to leave public school teaching. Since Florida has had statewide achievement testing in all grades 3-10 since 1999/2000 we are also able to compute "value-added" measures of teacher quality and determine whether teacher mobility engendered by accountability pressures tends to increase or decrease teacher quality. We find strong evidence that accountability shocks influence the teacher labor market. More specifically, teachers are more likely to leave schools that have been downwardly shocked (face increased accountability pressure)— especially to the bottom grade— and they are less likely to leave schools that have been upwardly shocked (face decreased accountability pressure). We also find that accountability shocks influence the distribution of the measured quality of teachers (in terms of valueadded measures) who stay and leave their school, though the average differences are not large. The results, therefore, suggest that school accountability can have quite consequential effects for professional educators.

(End of excerpt. The full report is available in PDF format.)

Topics/Tags: | Education

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