School-Based Accountability and the Distribution of Teacher Quality Among Grades in Elementary School

Much research has spotlighted the “dance of the lemons”: the shuffling of mediocre-to-bad teachers from one school to another. But is the same thing happening between grades within schools? This CALDER report by Helen Ladd and Sarah Fuller investigates. Tapping North Carolina’s robust set of data (from 1995 to 2009), Ladd and Fuller examine two research questions: First, are teachers in the upper elementary grades (3-5) of higher quality than those in the lower elementary grades (K-2)? And second, do school-based accountability policies (i.e., No Child Left Behind and North Carolina’s state-level accountability system, known as the ABC system) contribute to these differences by filtering the better teachers into the tested grades and shuffling the lower-quality teachers into those that are untested. The upshot? Teachers in the upper elementary grades do indeed have higher licensure-test scores (the proxy these researchers used for effectiveness, as teachers in lower grades have no value-added scores to analyze). What’s more, the advent of the NCLB accountability era (2003-2009 for this study) increased the gap in teacher quality between the lower to upper grades and the tendency of schools to move teachers of higher quality from the lower to upper grades and vice versa. (Though this same disparity—to a lesser extent—was also seen during the pre-accountability era, 1995-96, and the ABC accountability era, 1997-2002.) From these findings, Ladd and Fuller conclude that accountability policies induce pressure to perform in the tested grades, thereby disadvantaging children in the lower grades. Interesting findings, though the use of licensure-test data is admittedly shaky—great Kindergarten teaching (more so than classroom teaching in the upper elementary grades) relies on patience, warmth, the ability to grow social skills, and a host of other characteristics that are impossible to test on the teacher-licensure exam.

Sarah C. Fuller and Helen F. Ladd, School-Based Accountability and the Distribution of Teacher Quality Among Grades in Elementary School (Washington, D.C.: Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, April 2012).

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