One way that organizations improve is by making strategic decisions about their personnel: hiring good people, placing them where they can be most effective, supporting them, and holding on to them—or not, depending on their fit and their job performance. As two Tennessee Education Research Alliance (TERA) studies highlight, this thinking applies to schools and school districts as well.
First, as we describe in a recent TERA brief, school leadership plays an important role in teacher retention. To investigate this relationship, we merged information about teacher mobility in Tennessee with multiple measures of principal performance, including rubric-based practice ratings assigned to principals in TEAM and teachers’ assessments of leadership in their schools from the Tennessee Educator Survey.
The findings were stark. Tennessee teachers were more likely to “stick” in schools with highly rated leaders. But even more important: the most effective teachers were even more likely to stay under a strong leader, and, in contrast, the least effective teachers were actually more likely to turn over.
In other words, Tennessee’s most effective principals tend to strategically retain teachers. They do a better job of holding on to their best teachers, but they also find ways to remove struggling teachers or teachers who are not a good fit for the school, through “counseling out” or other means.
An interesting additional finding from our analysis is that the evidence of strategic retention was much stronger when measuring teacher effectiveness by classroom observation ratings than by value-added. We suspect that ratings are more informative for teacher retention because principals collect them themselves, and observation rubrics help principals think more specifically about which teachers are excelling and which are struggling.
Unfortunately, we find less evidence of this kind of strategic retention behavior in high-poverty, low-achieving schools—precisely the kinds of schools where exposure to a high-quality teacher can be especially meaningful for student outcomes. Being strategic is more challenging when finding replacement teachers is difficult. But a second TERA analysis points to another reason: districts also face strategic personnel challenges which lead them to place less effective principals in high-needs schools.
In this study, we examine the distribution of principal qualifications and performance measures across measures of school disadvantage (e.g., high poverty). Our clear conclusion is that principal quality is inequitably distributed in Tennessee. Districts tend not to place their most experienced and most effective principals in the highest need schools where they could potentially have the largest impact. Instead, across urban, suburban, and rural schools, we find that the least experienced, least effective principals are in the schools with the lowest achievement and highest concentrations of poverty.
This pattern arises in part because principals in the most disadvantaged schools turn over at higher rates and because districts tend to hire less experienced and less effective leaders into those schools when vacancies arise. For instance, schools with high poverty are much more likely to fill a principal vacancy with someone who has never been a principal before (principals typically are least effective in their first year when first learning the job). Across the state, more than 40 brand-new principals each year take over schools serving a student population that is more than 80 percent low-income.
Strategic personnel management in schools starts with strategic personnel management at the district level. Good teachers stay in schools with good principals. Recruiting and retaining excellent teachers in our highest-needs schools means ensuring that those school have effective leaders. And that means, first, getting strong leaders into high-needs schools a priority, then figuring out what incentives and supports they need to stay.
Jason A. Grissom is an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University as well as the faculty director at the Tennessee Education Research Alliance.