The Underappreciate and Unresolved Problem of Teacher Retention

The New York Times recently profiled what’s going on in education in Baltimore.

(P.S.  As part of their analysis, they visited Green Street Academy, where my girlfriend and former roommate teach.)

A Mission to Transform Baltimore’s Beaten Schools

My thoughts:

It’s an interesting piece. I most people agree that Alonso has had a
very positive impact, with respect to what had gone on in the city prior
to his arrival. He’s ruffled a lot of feathers, but overall, he’s been
much more successful navigating the politics and gathering consensus for
the sweeping changes he makes than Michelle Rhee was in DC.

One thing that caught my eye was how they mentioned that old black
educators are getting pushed into retirement. I think the author missed
something there. I don’t think it’s just old black teachers that are
getting pushed into retirement, I think everyone is getting pushed into
retirement. The system has become very high-stakes, and there is
immense amount of pressure to perform. In my experience, teaching was a
60-100+ hour per week job, and I still wasn’t able to actually
accomplish all the work I was technically supposed to be doing.

As a result, there is massive teacher turnover in City schools. Teach
For America gets a bad rep as a program that produces teachers for two
years who then leave the district they were placed in to do something
else. This isn’t precisely true, because many TFA teachers stay for
several years beyond that, although I’m sure the vast majority leave
within five. But I think if you look at the population non-TFA teachers
within the same schools TFA places teachers, you would see almost the
same statistic. You’ve got a diminishing group of older veterans, a
constantly flowing group of new teachers, and not a whole lot of
classroom teachers in their 30’s and 40’s.

I think a fundamental problem with education is that the general public
has no idea how intense the job of K-12 teaching in a low-income,
high-pressure setting is. I have friends who have left teaching for law
school, business school, banking, engineering, and just about every
other job under the sun, and for 90% of them, it’s not because the money
wasn’t good enough in teaching in the city. With little exception, they
are happier and less stressed out after leaving teaching. Yet, to the
general public, teachers are a bunch of bums that couldn’t get real jobs
and have too much vacation time.

Unfortunately, this means that rather than building a solid, experienced
teacher corps, new teachers constantly have to be trained from scratch.
Many K-12 educators say that it takes about 5 years for a teacher to
really approach peak effectiveness, but few people reach that level in
inner city schools.

Yet, I don’t hear a lot of talk about the retention problem directly.
The closest people usually come to talk about retention issues is when
talking about compensation and the currently fashionable movement toward
of merit pay. And although on the face of it, paying teachers more
seems like a worthwhile idea, I don’t think it’s the answer. I think
it’s going to provide a moderate bump in recruitment, but that it will
make little to no difference in retention. I think this because of all
the people I know who left teaching, not one of them left because of the
pay. At least in Baltimore, teachers actually do get paid reasonably
well, compared to the cost of living. People leave because it’s just
too intense for the vast majority of even the elite group TFA recruits.

The current direction is to try to recruit, train, and retain a corps of
highly paid superhumans who can actually handle the job stress. I think
the real answer is to find ways to split the jobs of classroom teachers
and administrators so that they can be taken on by teams of normal
people, who can pool their talents together–even if it means they don’t
get as much. Until the expectations of the job become more reasonable,
poor retention is always going to be a major impediment to any
meaningful improvement in K-12 education.

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