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Teaching Improves When Tenure Is Linked to Performance

New performance measures and selective tenure requirements in Tennessee schools boost early-career teachers, see gains for students
Smiling teacher

Much has been written about the benefits of successful teacher-evaluation programs for K–12 educators and students. Some research has even suggested that because many teachers are intrinsically motivated, personalized feedback from peer or principal evaluations is enough to help them improve their practice. However, new research on an evaluation program in Tennessee’s public schools that linked earning tenure to its teachers’ performance shows that incentives matter too.

Many states overhauled teacher performance measures in their schools to secure federal grants during the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative and Tennessee was one of the first to do so. The state introduced a new evaluation program for its teachers in 2012 which included new performance measures and new requirements for earning tenure tied to those measures. Job performance in Tennessee was measured by teachers’ contributions to student test scores, meaning how much they helped their students’ academic growth and achievement from year to year. Teaching effectiveness and a variety of other skills were also measured during classroom observations.

Eric Taylor examined how Tennessee’s new performance measures and tenure requirements impacted its teachers’ job performance in a new working paper available from the National Bureau of Economic Research. He focused on public school teachers early in their careers who taught math or English language arts to students in grades 4–8 in Tennessee.

Here are some of the study’s main findings:

Higher teacher performance.

In Tennessee’s new program, all teachers were rated during classroom observations by their principals and measured in other ways; and Taylor’s analysis finds that all the teachers early in their careers improved under the new evaluation program. However, those without tenure anticipated the tenure requirements that would come in future years and saw gains in their performance twice as large as the teachers who already had tenure.

Better results for kids.

Tennessee’s new evaluation system and tenure requirements “improved learning for kids and it helped early-career teachers improve their performance faster,” according to Taylor, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Teachers improved more quickly than they would have in the absence of the new system,” he says. The benefit was the equivalent of the students receiving an extra one to two weeks of classroom instruction during the school year.

Sustained improvements for teachers.

The new performance measures and tenure requirements had “persistent effects” on teachers — they continued to be better teachers even after they secured tenure.

Here are some broader implications for school and district leaders:

  • Classroom observations that include detailed rubrics and helpful and personalized guidance for teachers are “not just a measurement task, but an important source of support,” explains Taylor, which is in keeping with the findings of his previous research. “That’s likely part of why the teachers who already had tenure made improvements,” he says
  • Both effective feedback and incentives shape teachers and help them build skills. “Higher standards for tenure have a positive effect on teachers’ growth and their contributions to student achievement,” says Taylor. “There’s evidence for the benefits of feedback in this study and there’s also evidence for the benefits of more selective tenure policies based on evaluation.”
  • Some teacher-evaluation reforms in the country have not always been successful. However, the “school system and the kids in Tennessee were better off as a result of Tennessee’s reforms,” Taylor explains. He says that the tenure requirements attached to Tennessee’s new performance measures may be part of what distinguished Tennessee from reforms in other states, and made a difference for early-career teachers.

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