The study, published earlier this month in the peer-reviewed American Educational Research Journal, focuses on Miami-Dade County schools, the fourth-largest district in the country, from 2003 to 2014. Florida had strict accountability rules during that period, including performance-based letter grades for schools. (Those policies have been promoted as a national model by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his national education reform outfit, where Education Secretary Betsy DeVos previously served on the board.)
The trio of researchers hypothesized that because Florida focuses on the performance of students in certain grades and subjects—generally third through 10th-grade math and English—less-effective teachers would get shunted to other assignments, like early-elementary grades or social studies.
That’s exactly what they found.
In particular, elementary teachers effective at raising test scores tended to end up teaching grades 3-6, while lower-performing ones moved toward early grades.
While that may have helped schools look better, it didn’t help students. Indeed, the study finds that being assigned a teacher in early-elementary school who switched from a higher grade led to reduced academic achievement, effects that persisted through at least third grade.
The impact was modest in size, akin to being assigned a novice teacher as opposed to a more experienced one.
The study is limited in that it focuses on just a single district, albeit a very large one—a point the authors acknowledge. Still, the results are consistent with past research in North Carolina and Florida as a whole, and district leaders elsewhere have acknowledged responding to test pressure in the same way.
“There was once upon a time that, when the test was only grades three through 12, we put the least effective teachers in K-2,” said Sharon Griffin, the schools chief of Shelby County schools in Memphis, earlier this year. “We can’t do that anymore. We’re killing third grade and then we have students who get in third grade whose challenges are so great, they never ever catch up.”
While the Florida study can’t definitively link the migration of teachers to the state’s accountability system, evidence suggests that it was a contributing factor.
For one, the pattern is more pronounced in F-rated schools, which face the greatest pressure to raise test scores. The pattern is also stronger when principals have more control over staffing decisions—consistent with the idea that school leaders are moving teachers around with accountability systems in mind.
Previous research of policies like No Child Left Behind that threaten to sanction schools with low test scores have found both benefits and downsides. On the positive side, accountability can lead to higher achievement on low-stakes exams and improved instruction; studies of Florida’s system, in particular, have found a number of positive effects. On the negative side, high-stakes testing has caused cheating, teaching to the test, and suspensions of students unlikely to test well.