Florida's public schools come under increasing pressure each year to show students are improving academically. In more recent years, state and local lawmakers have been turning attention to the quality of classroom teachers and measuring teacher performance.
The popular measure of teacher performance now is student scores on high-stakes standardized tests. After all, research consistently shows that students with high-performing teachers tend to score better on all academic measures.
The Miami Herald reported recently that beginning in the fall of 2009 and concluding in 2012, Miami-Dade public schools involuntarily transferred 375 low-performing teachers to different schools. These teachers were identified by principals in 73 schools. The principals, whose schools were facing state sanctions, said they were acting "in the best interest" of the students and the district.
One result, according to a study by professors at Vanderbilt and Stanford universities published in the current Journal of Public Analysis and Management, was that test scores improved substantially under teachers who replaced those involuntarily transferred. The professors of the study have been tracking Miami-Dade school performance data for several years.
Jason Grissom, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt's Peabody College of Education and Human Development and one of the authors of the study, said that while most educators, including teacher advocates, believe that school districts need flexibility in assigning teachers more equitably across schools, forced transfers remain a hot-button issue.
Grissom acknowledged that more research needs to be done before solid conclusions can be drawn on the long-term effects of forced transfer policies on students, teachers or schools.
Still, Miami-Dade's multiyear experiment has produced higher performing students in the affected schools. The district is not alone in using such transfers. They are used across the country, with more than a third of Florida schools using them.
Critics and supporters say the practice is complex and can be downright messy. According to the Herald, this is how it works in Miami-Dade: After principals and district officials determine who the low-performing teachers are, they use a collective bargaining agreement that permits the transfer of these low-performing teachers to higher-performing schools that have positions open. This means, for example, that a teacher in a "D" school with a high poverty rate will be transferred to a "B" school with far fewer low-income students.
More often than not, transferred teachers went from middle and high schools to elementary schools, and they were assigned to teach subjects who were not part of the state evaluation and not counted in the schools' grades.
Obviously, not everyone is happy with forced transfers. Many teachers who have been moved to different schools believe, for example, that they are victims of vindictiveness or are being punished for voicing unpopular opinions or standing up for their rights. Many teachers in high-performing schools who are forced to take transferred teachers believe the district is simply moving problems from one campus to another.
A trend that supports this view is that the students of transferred teachers who were assigned state-tested subjects scored lower on these tests than their peers with high-performing veteran teachers at the schools.
But there is more good news than bad, according to the study. Although the teachers who replaced those who were transferred were typically younger and less experienced, they volunteered for the new jobs. The big payoff was that their students' scores greatly improved, particularly in reading.
Another payoff, according to the research, was that transferred teachers on average missed fewer days at their new schools, a sign that the changed environments encouraged them to be more productive.
The authors acknowledge their research is a work in progress because they had only three years and did not mine all of the variables involved in the forced transfer process. Still, they say, the major goal of the transfers is to improve teacher quality, thus enhancing student achievement.