Study: Struggling Miami-Dade schools benefited from teacher transfers

Dozens of struggling Miami-Dade schools benefited in recent years from the forced transfers of hundreds of teachers, according to newly published research.

Beginning in the fall of 2009 and ending in 2012, principals in 73 schools identified and transferred 375 low-performing teachers “in the best interest” of the school district. The result: Test scores improved notably under new teachers who stepped in to replace those transferred.

The study was published this month in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management by professors from Vanderbilt and Stanford universities who for years have been examining Miami-Dade County Public Schools data. “Despite claims that school districts need flexibility in teacher assignment to allocate teachers more equitably across schools and improve district performance, the power to involuntarily transfer teachers across schools remains hotly contested,” wrote Jason Grissom, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development and the lead author of the study. “Little research has examined involuntary teacher transfer policies or their effects on schools, teachers or students.”

More than a third of Florida school districts impose the transfers, as do other districts around the country. Some teachers have claimed they were moved as discipline for speaking out or whistle-blowing. And critics of the policy have said that forced teacher transfers simply dump poor, unmotivated educators on new schools.

But Grissom writes that a review of teacher, student and school data around Miami-Dade shows the district’s transfer policies improved schools from which teachers were removed. Here’s how Grissom and senior district officials say the practice worked:

In practice

School principals and district officials identified teachers with under-performing students. Then, using a collective-bargaining clause that allows for transfers “when deemed in the best interest of the school system,” principals moved those teachers to higher-performing schools with open positions.

Data suggest that these teachers were unlikely to leave their schools unless forced, according to Grissom. They often were removed from “D” schools with high poverty rates and ended up in “B” schools with a low percentage of impoverished students. They were given no say in the transfer, nor was the school in which they were placed.

Transferred teachers were typically moved from middle and high schools into elementary schools. They learned they would be transferred shortly before the opening of the new school year, and often were given jobs teaching subjects that were not tested by the state and did not factor into school grades.

Transferred teachers also missed fewer days in their new schools, a sign that they were more productive after being moved.

The good and bad

But not all of the results were positive. For the teachers who did end up in a tested subject, scores suggested their new students performed poorly in comparison to their peers. Grissom and his colleagues, however, noted there were too many variables to conclude the district was simply passing one school’s problem onto the next.

“There is little evidence that the policy resulted in a ‘dance of the lemons,’ ” they wrote.

The transferred teachers’ replacements, meanwhile, were typically younger and less experienced. But they came to the school voluntarily and improved students’ scores, including notable jumps in reading, according to the study.

Enid Weisman, Miami-Dade schools’ chief human capital officer, said that transfers have been allowed for years but were ramped up in 2009 amid aggressive state laws intended to pull perennially failing schools out of their ruts and under the administration of then-new Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. She said transfers were usually done with feedback from teacher union leaders. Union leaders did not respond to requests seeking comment Monday.

“Almost exclusively, these were low-performing schools facing state sanctions,” Weisman said. “It’s not done as an ‘I got you.’ I can’t do it because I don’t like you. That’s arbitrary and capricious. We did it — and lots of other things we’ve done — to improve teacher quality.”

Pablo Ortiz, associate superintendent in charge of the district’s Education Transformation Office, which oversees struggling schools, said that involuntary transfers were “step one” in the overhaul of failing schools. For instance, Miami Edison Senior High, where he was principal in 2009, replaced half its staff that year under a state mandate after receiving failing grades for years.

But he and Weisman said that involuntary transfers have now been scaled back because the need to move teachers has been greatly reduced.

“Stability is also an important factor in transforming these schools,” Ortiz said.

Grissom, the professor, said there can be lessons for other districts in the results of Miami-Dade’s transfers. He said the study has its limitations, such as the short, three-year time period. But the results show that transfers can be used successfully to improve equity in teaching in urban schools.

“We thought this seemed like an important issue,” he said. “This is something that has broader implications.”