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OP-ED | Teacher Tenure and Student Achievement Are Not Linked

by Sarah Darer Littman | Feb 24, 2012 5:55pm
(19) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Opinion

One thing I learned from meeting Gov. Dannel P. Malloy last Friday is that the lawyer-turned-politician requires evidence when confronted with a dissenting opinion. As a columnist and citizen of the state of Connecticut deeply concerned with matters of education, I do too.

Let’s take a controversial plank of the education reform bill.  “Since 2009, 31 states have enacted tenure reform, including our neighboring states of New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.  It’s time for Connecticut to act.”

I’m reminded of something my parents used to say: “If (insert name here) were going to jump off a cliff, would you do that, too?”

I’ve been searching since last week, and have been struggling to find any studies that provide hard evidence that reforming teacher tenure improves student performance.

If tenure were indeed one of the main stumbling blocks to teacher effectiveness and student success, one would expect charter schools, which currently have the dual “advantage” of not offering tenure or being required to provide a “free appropriate education” to populations with learning and emotional disabilities, would significantly outperform their public school counterparts.

But, this isn’t the case, as numerous studies have shown.

One of the governor’s favorite talking points on the tenure reform issue is the teacher “everyone knows” who they don’t want their kid to have – or maybe that alcoholic teacher he had as a youth who was allowed to remain teaching.  But as one irate teacher pointed out:  “Since ‘everyone knows’ that poorly performing teacher who stayed employed, where was that teacher’s administrator, and why doesn’t the governor also put blame on the evaluator who left that teacher in place rather than facilitating help?”

It appears the governor has set the particular course of action his administration decided upon for education reform, whatever evidence there might be to the contrary. But it’s important to look at some of that evidence – in fact, a lot of it - before we jump off the proverbial cliff.

A study by Carrie R. Leana, George H. Love Professor of Organizations and Management at the University of Pittsburgh, “The Missing Link in Education Reform” published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review sheds some interesting light on the flaws in the education reform thinking that so many, including our governor, seem to have embraced with open arms.

Leana discusses the three major planks in current reform thinking:

1) Accountability model – what we get when we look at schools as an economic model - exemplified in the value-added metrics. Such metrics are meant to assess annual increments in each student’s learning derived from standardized tests in subject areas like math and reading which are then aggregated to arrive at a “value added” score for a teacher. According to reform thinking, if schools can increase their “human capital” through the accountability model, then much of the problem will be solved.

2) Bring in outsiders – hence the curriculum consultants, allowing quick routes to certification without educational experience. Perhaps the most disastrous example of this was Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to appoint Hearst Magazines Chairman Cathie Black as Chancellor of New York City Public Schools when she had no teaching experience or background in education. “ A natural extension of the belief in the power of outsiders is the notion that teacher tenure is the enemy of effective public education.” Leana writes… Implicit in such arguments is the assumption that the ranks of senior teachers are plagued by incompetence and that the less experienced would do better in their place.”

3) The principal is viewed as the “instructional leader” who is responsible for developing and managing the school and its teaching practices.  “In the language of business, the principal is a line manager expected to be a visible presence in the classroom, ensuring that teachers are doing their jobs.”

What her research determines is that these ideas are based on politics, not, as the governor requires of the rest of us, actual evidence.

These three beliefs—in the power of teacher human capital, the value of outsiders, and the centrality of the principal in instructional practice—form the implicit or explicit core of many reform efforts today. Unfortunately, all three beliefs are rooted more in conventional wisdom and political sloganeering than in strong empirical research. Together they constitute what I call the ideology of school reform. And although this, like all ideology, may bring us comfort in the face of uncertainty and failure, it is unhelpful and perhaps dangerous if it leads us to pursue policies that will not bring about sustained success.

What reformers are missing, Leana found, is the value of teacher social capital – how teachers work collaboratively. “When a teacher needs information or advice about how to do her job more effectively, she goes to other teachers. She turns far less frequently to the experts and is even less likely to talk to her principal. Further, when the relationships among teachers in a school are characterized by high trust and frequent interaction—that is, when social capital is strong—student achievement scores improve.”

Teacher stability is important to building this within a school. What’s particularly compelling about Leana’s research is the double whammy students suffer when an experienced teacher leaves:

We found social capital losses to be highly detrimental to student achievement. … the higher the teacher turnover rate at the school, the lower the student achievement gains the following year. But it also mattered which teachers left, in terms of their levels of human and social capital. When teacher turnover resulted in high losses of either human or social capital, student achievement declined. But when turnover resulted in high losses of both human and social capital, students were particularly disadvantaged. These results show that teacher tenure can have significant positive effects on student achievement.

As we pointed out earlier this week, we are already losing some of our best and most experienced teachers because of the rigidity imposed by NCLB. Gutting tenure, as the governor’s proposal seeks to do, will only exacerbate the problem. How will that improve education?

The teachers unions appear open to reducing the time and expense the appeals process takes. If the objective is truly to get rid of the underperforming teachers and not to penalize the good ones, it would behoove the governor to look at the evidence and consider compromising, instead of trying to pull a Chris Christie.

Sarah Darer Littman is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers and an award-winning novelist of books for teens. Long before the financial meltdown, she worked as a securities analyst and earned her MBA in Finance from the Stern School at NYU.

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(19) Comments

posted by: brutus2011 | February 24, 2012  7:29pm


Thank you Ms. Littman for your perspective. I have often thought what your research has concluded.
Question is—how to spread he word?

posted by: Santa | February 24, 2012  7:53pm

When did Connecticut get the power to grant citizenship?  I think you mean residents of Connecticut?

posted by: CitizenCT | February 25, 2012  10:16am

Sarah, you say that teacher tenure and student achievement are not linked.  Is it fair to say that being raised in a stable, two parent household is linked to student achievement?  Eliminating the achievement gap requires getting at the root cause.

posted by: mbracksieck | February 25, 2012  2:46pm

Tenure is not the reason why we have a few bad teachers. Tenure is the reason why we have so many great teachers.

The mechanism for dismissal needs fixing, not dismantling. Don’t make a law that affects over 50,000 people because of a few bad ones, focus on the few who need focusing on.

posted by: Reasonable | February 25, 2012  3:39pm

Sarah: Our Governor has a dubious record on “compromising” as evidenced by “the non-existent way he has compromised with Republicans in the General Assembly,” since he was elected.

posted by: Mac Bogert | February 25, 2012  6:24pm

Thanks for the facts. As long as schools are markers for politicians, there’s no reason to hope for reform. Schools where every member of the population is part of the learning community always do better over time, Sudbury schools, for instance! My website is

posted by: saramerica | February 25, 2012  6:28pm


CitizenCT - you are banging the same drum you always do. I have provided empirical research for the points I have made. How about you do the same?  The studies I have seen on this issue are mixed. So please back your points up with facts, as I have done.

Santa, if you want to nitpick points and ignore the substance, that’s your prerogative.  Personally I would rather focus on the important stuff.

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | February 25, 2012  6:52pm


DO you feel that home schooling your daughter compromises your message? It would seem like that means you have tepid support for your school system.

posted by: saramerica | February 25, 2012  7:22pm


FYI - here’s an article that, while it recognizes the risk factors involved in being raised by a single parent, comes to the same conclusion I have written about previously: that INCOME is a far better predictor, no matter what the family structure:  “Studies that consider the influence of both family configuration and income find that there is little difference in the academic performance of children from two-parent and single-parent homes when family income is equal [2; 6; 9; “14].

posted by: saramerica | February 25, 2012  7:27pm


Brutus2011 - Post this to all your social networks, and have your connections lobby the Governor’s office and their state reps. Point out the empirical research that has been done and then ask for the research that would back up the efficacy of proposed policy changes. I have done this and have not received any joy thus far. We keep hearing that teachers should be judged on data, but so should radical policy changes, no?

posted by: saramerica | February 26, 2012  11:04am


Goatboy - are you talking to me about homeschooling? My daughter has always attending public school, with the exception of nursery school. Fortunately, we had the money to send her to a private nursery school. Not everyone has the option, which is why so many kids start off behind the starting line when they get to kindergarten. 500 additional early childhood education seats is a start in the Governor’s bill, but it’s not going to reduce that advantage that wealthy communities have over less wealthy communities, and that is a factor in the achievement gap.

posted by: Terry D. Cowgill | February 26, 2012  2:07pm

Terry D. Cowgill

Sarah, there is no question that turnover of veteran teachers is typically detrimental to the mission of educating children. But what’s unclear to me in the study you cite is why the teachers are leaving the schools. Is teacher turnover the reason for the diminished student achievement or are teachers leaving the school because of the difficulty and lack of support they receive in teaching the low-achieving students?

I guess what I’m saying is I’m not sure the “jumping-off-the-cliff” metaphor works here. The assumption seems to be that if tenure is reformed or eliminated, then lots of veteran teachers will be fired or they will leave the profession because they have less job security.

For several years I taught in private schools, where tenure is virtually non-existent. We all had one-year contracts. There were cases in which I thought some teachers were treated unfairly but the vast majority of the time, those whose contracts weren’t renewed deserved it.

And I think that’s the point. In order to run a organization, leaders need to be able to choose the workers who will carry out its mission. And if it costs almost $100k in legal fees to get rid of a teacher who’s not carrying his weight, then administrators and school boards will just as soon not rock the boat.

That why I support the CT Association of School Superintendents’ proposal of 5-year renewable contracts.

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | February 26, 2012  3:07pm


Low income single parents are more at risk of life disrupting events like job loss, depression, and substance abuse. Even short term bouts with disrupting events can be catastrophic.

What isn’t mentioned is the attitude, the belief or certainty that academic work will translate into a better life. Too often this belief that many families take for granted is missing. It’s the victimization thing that the single parent (often a woman) is against the world and non-supporting ex-boyfriends, racial and sexist structures,  etc.

The benefits of a stable nuclear family that believes in the system and is involved in their kids education is too well documented.

These studies started in earnest in the early 1980s when it was noted parochial schools had better outcomes than public schools in inner cities.

At first it was believed tuition set expectations higher. Then it was the uniforms. Then it was parental involvement. Then it was skimming (parochial schools could expel students more easily and control entrance requirements). Then it was the respect thing and the suggestion of a higher moral code of honor.

The conclusion from those studies trickled down into the Charter School movement which is where we are at today.

I worked with the single mother population for 3 years. You can’t compare the Avon (or LongMeadow) single mother who comes from a ‘decent’  enough family and is getting decent enough child support, and has some decent skills herself when going through retraining. 

Compare Miss Avon to the Hartford (or Springfield) single mother who isn’t getting any support from the Baby Father, often a drop out herself who barely got a GED, and has some family but they are either financially strapped or playing the ‘tough love’ game. She wanted the children, she can fend for herself financially.

The kids are at an entirely different level of risk and get entirely different kinds of emotional support for schooling.

Will tenure reform change this? Of course not.

Factor in language issue in the case of the young Hispanic Mother and once again tenure reform is chimera.

Does that mean tenure reform is bad? No. Firing and staff replacement should be easier and there are sound reasons for that. 

Back to the money as the remedy for that single mother. In most cases the state thinks providing a gaggle of white support workers (tutors and school lunch workers and all day preschool and summer enrichment classes) will somehow make the situation right for the at risk kids or that job retraining for the mother and nutrition guidance and food stamps will make it right for the mother.

That’s the failure right there. Somehow we’ve bought into a gaggle of unionized SEBAC and teaching pensioneers are the answer to income disparities and sexual irresponsibility.

In the worse cases its DSS placement (get into that ugly fact when talking about single mothers and tenure).

The assumption that more money to the public sector handled by a public sector pensioneer will then cure these social disparities is a well-documented joke.  The same joke as tenure reform when looked at narrowly and as a cure for poverty.

We need more jobs for these young mothers. Training. A way to get them to believe in the system again. A way to restore their dignity. That isn’t done by putting them into hands of welfare state dependency for 15 years.

posted by: Reasonable | February 26, 2012  3:39pm

saramerica: The paltry additional 500 seats, is more of a Malloy quest for votes, than a start, as it is really a drop in the bucket.

posted by: EdLeadershipcrisis | February 27, 2012  1:05pm

Assertions from research are only as accurate as the context for any given study. Sheer teacher turnover unto itself is not necessarily a disadvantaging factor if 1) those who replace them are capable and have at least a few years experience and a good track record and 2) the professional culture promotes/expects social capital. Of course those are big IFs in urban public education.  Please be reminded that among the most successful schools in the world are accredited international schools that exist in almost every major or capital city worldwide, and teacher turnover is a fundamental characteristic of the schools - 20-30% staff turnover annually. While these are populated by mostly priveleged students, the schools succeed/improve because quality replaces quality. Social and human capital in these schools is absolutely not lost with high teacher turnover. In urban public schools, assuming author Leana used that context, then the human and social capital is being lost - but why? Perhaps the pipeline needs supporting to ensure that the numbers are there. In this lousy economy, there shouldn’t be a shortage of capable people from various backgrounds flocking to be a teacher either out of social consciousness or economic necessity. This is why expanding alternate routes and growing TFA are so important to the pipeline -increasing the human capital. While a revolving door of replacing urban teachers with rookie teachers is very problematic, policy attention to the pipeline is more important than tenure reform until the pipeline is filled with the most capable. With a weak pipeline of too many unprepared recent teacher prep grads originating from the middle of the high school pack, teacher turnover resulting from tenure change will not be all that the Gov expects it to be until his higher teacher prep entry criteria raise the bar. The cart is before the horse here.

posted by: Teacher | February 27, 2012  9:05pm

Terry- In private school you do not have the same population. I have had years that out of 22 students 11 are special Ed. And another 8 ESL. This doesn’t include behavior or students with 504 plans.Most are required to take CMT’s and DRA’s. These scores will reflect on my evaluation and effect my tenure. I have no control over my class make up each year. My children progressed that yr., but at their own rate.

posted by: Terry D. Cowgill | February 27, 2012  10:40pm

Terry D. Cowgill

Teacher, first of all, not all private schools are elite institutions. That is a stereotype. Yes they can pick and choose their students if they have the luxury of being selective.

For the last seven years of my career I taught at a boarding school full of ADD kids who were either straight out of drug rehab or had histories of fighting or both. 

When I made the comparison to private schools, it was only in terms of evaluating teachers, not the admission of students. And I maintain that there is no way a new leader can turn around a failing institution with the same cast of characters. But unfortunately the public school culture insists that you must. So you are doomed to fail. 

posted by: Mac Bogert | February 28, 2012  12:09pm

Interesting conversation. Maybe we can set the dialogue bar a bit higher by not blaming and comparing. I think we have some congruence available as problem-solvers. Private schools and public schools are still both schools, after all, and learning is learning across the board. Let’s focus on learning instead of ideology . . .

posted by: sWamp-ass | February 29, 2012  9:16pm


The big elephant in the room no one wants to talk about is that the achievement gap is primary a result of the culture gap in the home.  All schools and teachers can do is provide an opportunity for an education, more than that and you are asking the wrong people to clean up a mess that they have no ability to ever fix.