Like all of us, principals respond to performance pressures by seeking to alleviate them as quickly and simply as possible. Unfortunately, when it comes to the pressure to improve test scores, the simplest solution may be the most likely to backfire.
A recent study by Jason Grissom of Vanderbilt University and Demetra Kalogrides and Susanna Loeb of Stanford University shows that over a ten-year period, principals in Miami-Dade County Public Schools rearranged their teaching staffs in response to the accountability pressures of No Child Left Behind. Principals moved their best teachers into tested grades (3rd through 10th), presumably with the goal of improving outcomes in the grades most obviously linked to schools' accountability scores.
The researchers found that principals were more likely to engage in this type of "strategic staffing" in schools where they had more control over staff assignment and in schools that had received a failing grade and were therefore facing particularly intense pressure to improve. Overall, a below-average teacher (with student assessment scores one standard deviation below the mean) had a 13 percent chance of being moved to a non-tested grade, compared to a 5 percent chance of being moved among above-average teachers.
Of course, moving a struggling teacher to a different grade would not be bad IF that teacher turns out to be better equipped to teach that new age range. A non-state assessment administered by researchers to gauge performance in the earliest grades revealed this not to be the case; instead, they found that K-2 students taught by teachers who had been moved from a higher grade lost so much ground that it carried over into their performance on the 3rd grade tests, if not even longer.
What seems like a sound short-term strategy actually creates longer-term harm.