Teacher and students in classroom

Following passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, a theme repeatedly heard in news reports was that standardized test-based school accountability pressures were driving teachers away from their job or the profession, especially those at schools with larger proportions of poverty-impacted students.

New research by a University of Washington College of Education professor shows NCLB school accountability had only a limited impact on the teacher labor market, however, demonstrating just how difficult it can be to change teachers’ employment decisions.

Professor Min Sun, lead author of the study “Federal policy and the teacher labor market: exploring the effects of NCLB school accountability on teacher turnover,” said three major findings emerged:

  1. There was a weak increase in the average rate of teachers transferring involuntarily to other schools as a result of school-initiated separations, particularly in schools serving larger proportions of poor and minority students.
  2. NCLB reduced the involuntary attrition rates of teachers.
  3. There was no distinguishable policy effect on teachers voluntarily transferring between schools or leaving the teaching profession.

Sun said the primary reason NCLB school accountability didn’t impact voluntary turnover was that it targeted whole schools as the unit of accountability, rather than individual teachers. Nor did it systemically address the distribution of teachers across schools.

“That might be why we observed NCLB school accountability had measurable impact only on school-initiated separations, while it had close to zero effect on teacher-initiated career movements,” she said.

With the Every Student Succeeds Act focusing on system level change to provide effective teachers for all students, Sun said that shift may create more movements in teacher labor markets if states use transfer incentives to move teachers across schools or use retention bonuses to keep effective teachers in disadvantaged schools and communities.

The study found most NCLB effects on involuntary turnover behaviors pertain to teachers in nontested areas (the tested group of teachers defined as general teachers in elementary school grades 3 to 5 and subject-specific teachers who taught math or reading in grades 3 to 8).

Sun speculated that could be a result of schools shifting resources to test subject areas or grades under NCLB, with teachers in tested subjects being in greater demand and those in non-tested subjects seeing lower demand.

And while ESSA includes multiple measures to indicate school effectiveness, she noted, states are asked to continue to test students in these core subject areas and grade levels, as well as to give the heaviest weight to academic success in their school accountability systems.

“When the one other statewide indicator of school and student success are not as readily available or does not have the same degree of variation as student test scores, the school accountability may be defaulted to rely heavily on test scores,” Sun said. “We may continue to see the same pattern as we observed under NCLB.”

Sun, who recently published research on the impact of teacher spillover effects, urges school leaders to be creative in leveraging the positive influences of effective teachers who are already in their schools.

“Within schools, principals can pair effective teachers with ineffective colleagues into teams,” Sun said. “School leaders can also use structural changes to further promote positive spillovers. Strategies can include time and space for teachers to work together. Increasing coherent curriculum and common planning times can also help. Of course, using the Teacher Incentive Funds to reward positive spillovers can be very helpful. These talent management strategies from a system- or organizational-level perspective have the premise to allow all students to benefit from effective teachers.”

Sun's research is funded by the National Science Foundation as part of her Teacher Improvement and Career Trajectories project.


Min Sun, Assistant Professor of Education
206-221-1625, misun@uw.edu

Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications
206-543-1035, dwunder@uw.edu