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What We've Learned

TERA’s research has had notable impacts on policy and practice in Tennessee, and we have learned much about key topics including school turnaround, school leadership, educator diversity, educator improvement and preparation, and how past reforms have shaped each of these areas. Below is a summary of key findings across TERA research over the last ten years.

Key Topics

School Leadership

Numerous studies of leadership in Tennessee schools underscore the importance of effective principals for creating a positive school climate, retaining effective teachers and promoting high levels of student achievement. We also know that principal quality is not distributed equally amongst schools in Tennessee. These studies suggest that investment in identifying, developing, strategically placing, and retaining effective principals is critical to student success.

Specific Findings


Educator Diversity

TERA research showing the increased rate of within-district transfers among Black teachers and the effect of school leadership on the racial composition of teachers highlights the need for policies and resources aimed at promoting teacher retention. Additionally, the rate of attrition among Black teachers is roughly equal to that of white teachers indicating that the state and districts could benefit from focusing on recruitment of teachers of color into the profession. Specifically, focusing recruitment efforts on building increasingly diverse teaching communities within individual school buildings may help attract more teachers of color given that teachers of color are less likely to leave if there are more teachers of color in their building.

Specific Findings

  • Black teachers, particularly Black male teachers, are more likely to leave their schools than White teachers. However, they generally move to different schools within the same district rather than leave the profession altogether.  
  • Turnover is higher among Black teachers in part because they are more likely to work in schools where turnover is higher among all teachers, including schools with more concentrated student poverty and lower average student achievement. 
  • Turnover among Black teachers is especially high when they are racially isolated. Black teachers turn over at higher rates when they have few Black teachers as colleagues. 
  • Black principals retain Black teachers at higher rates.


Educator Evaluation

Numerous TERA studies provide evidence that the evaluation system helped raise the quality of the labor pool of teachers, and where districts and/or schools developed robust approaches to evaluation, supported instructional improvement among existing teachers. Additionally, the increasingly positive responses on the Tennessee Educator Survey from teachers regarding the efficacy of the process suggests that state policymakers’ investment in comprehensive teacher evaluation have contributed to positive outcomes for teachers and students.

The educator evaluation system helps school leaders to make strategic personnel decisions and facilitates teacher growth. After close to a decade of implementation, policymakers should carefully examine the elements of this system to determine how the evaluation system can help Tennessee’s educators continue to improve in the coming years.

Specific Findings

  • Student achievement improved more after Tennessee’s evaluation reform than we would have expected otherwise. 
  • Teacher retention decisions became more selective with respect to teacher performance following evaluation reform. 
  • The rate of teachers’ year-over-year improvement increased following evaluation reform. 
  • Tennessee’s teachers increasingly perceive the evaluation system to be leading to improvements in their practice and students’ achievement. 


Educator Improvement

TERA research shows that teachers continue to improve over the course of their careers and that teachers in Tennessee specifically grew at faster rates than teachers in other states from 2010 to 2015. However, both teacher growth, and relatedly, the quality of professional learning vary greatly across districts. State, district, and school leaders should consider policies that support more robust professional learning and teacher development, such as efforts to improve teacher preparation, support the effectiveness of all educators, and encourage the retention of the state’s most effective teachers.

Specific Findings

  • Tennessee teachers continue to improve over the course of their careers and at a greater rate than in other states.
  • Variation exists in teacher improvement by district.


  • Papay, J. P. & Laski, M. E. (2018). Exploring teacher improvement in Tennessee. Tennessee Education Research Alliance.
  • Rubin, M. & Hill, H. (June 15, 2019). Beyond professional development: What we know about teacher professional development in Tennessee. In Professional Learning in Tennessee [panel presentation]. Bridging the Gap Between Research, Policy, and Practice: A Tennessee Education Research Alliance Convening. Nashville, Tennessee. 

Educator Preparation

Several TERA studies document the importance of having an effective instructional mentor during the teacher preparation experience. Based on the research findings, state and local leaders could consider promising practices to recruit instructionally effective clinical mentors, including:

  • School and district leaders could consider making use of evaluation data when recruiting mentor teachers. They can leverage this information as they work in partnership with EPPs to recruit more effective teachers.
  • State leaders could seek to scale efforts to provide information and incentives for recruiting instructionally effective clinical mentors, and work collaboratively with EPPs and districts to identify those teachers who are best equipped to serve as mentors in the state.

Specific Findings

  • Pre-service teachers with more instructionally effective clinical mentors perform better during their first year as measured by observation and student growth scores, feel more prepared, and report more frequent and higher-quality coaching.
  • Serving as a clinical mentor does not negatively impact teachers' evaluation scores.


School Turnaround

Despite significant financial support from federal initiatives such as School Improvement Grants and Race to the Top, few state-led efforts to turn around low-performing schools have led to gains in student achievement. In contrast, the gains made by Tennessee’s Innovation Zones (iZones) have been widely recognized and well documented.

Research in Tennessee and other states has informed a set of guiding principles for school turnaround that constitute a coherent and interconnected approach to reform, all of which are necessary to improve low-performing schools. The five principles are not specific practices, nor is this a how-to guide for districts. Rather, the principles are mutually supportive components of a comprehensive strategy for effective school reform.

The guiding principles are:

  • Establish a dedicated organizational infrastructure
  • Identify and address barriers to improvement
  • Increase instructional capacity
  • Increase leadership capacity
  • Implement processes and practices to maintain stability

Overall Findings

Educator Effectiveness Findings


Educator Compensation

The results of studies evaluating Tennessee’s strategic compensation reforms in the years from 2010 through 2016 show that teacher payouts had a modest influence on the composition of teacher retention. Teachers who received a substantial payout ($5,000) were more likely to stay in a strategic compensation school than would have otherwise been expected; teachers who did not receive a payout or who received only a very small payout were more likely to leave. Financial incentives to attract and retain effective teachers and leaders are important policy considerations for reducing turnover and increasing the percentage of highly effective teachers in hard-to-staff schools.

Specific Findings


  • Springer, M. G., Swain, W. A., & Rodriguez, L. A. (2016). Effective teacher retention bonuses: Evidence from Tennessee. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 2(38): 199-221.
  • Swain, W. A., Rodriguez, L. A., & Springer, M. G. (2019). Selective retention bonuses for highly effective teachers in high poverty schools: Evidence from Tennessee. Economics of Education Review, 68(C), 148-160.
  • Springer, M. G., Taylor, L. L. (2021). Compensation and composition: Does strategic compensation affect workforce composition? Journal of Education Human Resources, 39(2): 101-164.

Tennessee Educator Survey

Each year, the Tennessee Educator Survey provides the state and school districts with actionable information on educator perceptions of conditions in their specific school and across critical policy areas. The state and school districts should continue to actively use this information to react to educator needs and plan for the coming year.

Overview of Findings Since 2019

  • Educators feel that their schools are a learning community in which ideas and suggestions for improvement are encouraged.
  • Educators feel there is an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect in their schools.
  • Most teachers believe their principal exhibits instructional leadership.
  • Teachers more often feel that they work in a supportive school environment when their leaders protect teachers' planning time, effectively and consistently handle student discipline, and foster an open and trusting culture among staff.
  • The percentage of educators who feel that evaluation is improving teaching has doubled since annual evaluation began in 2012.
  • Teachers report spending substantial time sourcing and supplementing materials.