Subgroup-Specific Accountability, Teacher Job Assignments, And Teacher Attrition: Lessons For States

Our guest author today is Matthew Shirrell, assistant professor of educational leadership and administration in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the George Washington University.

Racial/ethnic gaps in student achievement persist, despite a wide variety of interventions designed to address them (see Reardon, Robinson-Cimpian, & Weathers, 2015). The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) took a novel approach to closing these achievement gaps, requiring that schools make yearly improvements not only in overall student achievement, but also in the achievement of students of various subgroups, including racial/ethnic minority subgroups and students from economically disadvantaged families.

Evidence is mixed on whether NCLB’s “subgroup-specific accountability” accomplished its goal of narrowing racial/ethnic and other achievement gaps. Research on the impacts of the policy, however, has largely neglected the effects of this policy on teachers. Understanding any effects on teachers is important to gaining a more complete picture of the policy’s overall impact; if the policy increased student achievement but resulted in the turnover or attrition of large numbers of teachers, for example, these benefits and costs should be weighed together when assessing the policy’s overall effects.

In a study just published online in Education Finance and Policy (and supported by funding from the Albert Shanker Institute), I explore the effects of NCLB’s subgroup-specific accountability on teachers. Specifically, I examine whether teaching in a school that was held accountable for a particular subgroup’s performance in the first year of NCLB affected teachers’ job assignments, turnover, and attrition.

To determine the effects of subgroup-specific accountability on teachers, my study takes advantage of the fact that NCLB did not hold all schools accountable for the performance of their student subgroups. Instead, the law allowed states to set a minimum number of students that were required for a subgroup’s test scores to “count” in determining whether a school had made “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP). In North Carolina, the state I examine in my study, this minimum subgroup size was set at 40 students; this meant that the black students’ test scores “counted” in AYP determinations for schools with 40 black students, but did not count for schools with 39 black students. My study compares teachers’ job assignments, turnover, and attrition in these two groups of schools to determine whether being held accountable for particular subgroups when NCLB first took effect impacted teachers.

I find that whether or not the black students’ performance counted for a particular school in NCLB’s first year affected the job assignments and attrition of the black teachers that worked there. In terms of job assignments, black teachers were assigned fewer black students in schools where the black students’ performance counted, compared to black teachers in schools where the black subgroup did not count. In terms of magnitudes, my analyses suggest that black teachers in schools where the black subgroup did not “count” were assigned an average of about eight black students in a class of 25, while black teachers in schools where the black subgroup counted were assigned an average of five black students in a class of 25. Given the small numbers of black students in these schools, these differences are meaningful.

I also find that whether or not the black subgroup’s performance counted affected the likelihood that black teachers left public school teaching in North Carolina. Black teacher attrition was higher in schools where the black students’ performance did not “count,” compared to schools where the black students’ performance counted. This difference could be driven by a decrease in black teacher attrition from schools where the black subgroup counted, but some evidence suggests that an increase in attrition from schools where the black subgroup did not count could also explain the results.

Why did accountability for the black subgroup—or the lack thereof—affect black teachers’ attrition from teaching? One possibility is that black teachers’ decisions to remain in teaching were impacted by whether or not the black students in their schools counted in AYP determinations. Another possibility is that school principals selectively retained or removed black teachers, depending on whether or not the black students counted in their schools. A third possibility is that some schools manipulated their numbers of tested black students to avoid accountability for the subgroup, and that this manipulation drove black teacher attrition. No matter the specific processes at work, my study makes clear that subgroup-specific accountability that targeted this subgroup had causal impacts on the job assignments and attrition of black teachers.

The Every Student Succeeds Act continues to mandate that states include in their accountability systems a measure of—and a means to close—racial/ethnic and socioeconomic gaps in student achievement; the specific designs of states’ subgroup-focused accountability systems, however, are still unclear. Given that the focus of accountability policymaking has largely shifted from the federal to the state level, it is crucial that states learn from prior efforts at subgroup-specific accountability, including the impacts of subgroup-focused policies on teachers. My work suggests that states should carefully monitor the impacts of their accountability policies on not only student subgroups, but also on teachers. Attempts to close racial/ethnic and other achievement gaps that have the unintended consequence of undermining the diversity of the teacher workforce may be counterproductive, in both the short and long term.   

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