Tag Archives: teacher retention

Keeping Teachers New

So John Merrow of Taking Note discusses “teacher churn” . Merrow, who I don’t really object to much, is a bit like another veteran education reporter Jay Mathews in that he’s superb at hard reporting but should avoid analysis. (At least Merrow hasn’t been responsible for massive grade fraud and wasted taxpayer dollars. Thanks, John!)

… somewhere between 30% and 50% of all new teachers leave the profession within their first five years…The churn, which seems to be increasing, has had a profound impact on our teaching force. As recently as 1987, schools were hiring only about 65,000 new teachers a year. By 2008, the last year I found data for, schools were hiring 200,000 new teachers. As a consequence of the churn, one-quarter of our teachers have less than five years of experience, and that’s a huge change: In 1987 the modal ‘years of experience’ was 15—we had more teachers with 15 years of teaching experience than any other. Today the modal teacher is a rookie in her first year on the job.

And in fairness, his flawed reasoning here isn’t any worse than the crap that most policy advocates, particularly on the reform side, go through.

But flawed it is. One, we are hiring more teachers. Two, more teachers are leaving the profession after a few years….but wait. No, we don’t know that more teachers are leaving the profession, as a percentage of the population, since 1988. It’s a bit like an SAT inference question, isn’t it?

Teacher turnover has been an area of study since at least the late 70s. Murnane is a name that pops up often. An early paper by Linda Darling Hammond calls for more data collection, challenging the then received wisdom that teacher turnover and teacher quality were problems that would inevitably lead to shortages—heavens, that sounds familiar. I don’t in fact know that teacher turnover is worse (and trying to hunt that data down is the kind of research that leads to increased lag time between my posts), but certainly it’s been an area of study for close to forty years.

So while Merrow doesn’t actually state that turnover is increasing, he does imply that turnover, or “churn”, is why we’re hiring more teachers. But that’s obviously not the only possibility. The late 70s to early 80s were a tough time for teachers, as the boom generation finally left K-12 education and the “baby bust”, coupled with fiscal issues, led to layoffs. The following echo boom would have required more teachers.

Reduced class size initiatives, the huge increase in special education mandates, charter growth—all of these would lead to increased teacher hiring without entailing turnover. Charters rarely take away enough students from a single school for a one-to-one teacher exchange, and of course charters are allowed to cap growth (nice work if you can get it).

No reason to think the increase in teacher hiring has been caused by increased churn, then.

Given that Merrow hasn’t even really built the case for increased teacher churn, it makes sense that his culprit is totally off.

But I nominate schools and colleges of education as the primary beneficiaries of churn. After all, someone has to train the replacements. Consider one state, Illinois: In 2012, its institutions of higher education graduated over 43,000 education majors, presumably the majority of them trained to be teachers.[3] Illinois K-12 schools employ about 145,000 teachers. If 20% leave in a given year, that creates 29,000 vacancies–I.E., jobs for 29,000 replacements.

Right, it’s ed schools! They aren’t turning out bad teachers because of their own incompetence, but because it feeds the need for their service!

Except, um, ed schools already overproduce elementary school teachers. (I don’t think they do so deliberately—my sense is a lot of unmotivated women who just want a degree go this route without ever really intending to be teachers. No evidence, but there’d be a lot more complaining if that many teachers each year couldn’t find employment.)

Besides, ed schools benefit from the “step and column” pay structure, in which teachers are paid both by time and acquired education. Most pay scales dramatically slow the “step” increases after year eight to ten, deliberately pushing teachers towards professional development. Teaching is apay to play occupation—the state makes us pay to jump through a bunch of hoops. Ed school benefits from the whole process, not just the entry point. No increased steps, no column. No incentive for massive churn.

As I’ve observed before, teachers and cops have a lot in common and wow, check out the research on cop turnover. Like teachers, policing is a state government job that requires intelligence, doesn’t have a huge amount of upwards growth, but offers qualified people an interesting challenge or a safe job, depending on their inclinations and abilities. And both occupations turn out to be harder than they appear to the outsider, thus leading to what I assume is a higher than average degree of turnover for a professional occupation. Thus I don’t see any sinister cause for teacher churn.

Please God, spare us all from the Linda Darling Hammond solution of more, longer training.

All that said—and in this next part, consider my tone descriptive, not prescriptive—I pointed out in the Chris Christie piece above that teachers are clearly targeted in a way that cops aren’t, despite the fact that they’re more expensive, work fewer years and take longer pensions (or disability) and just as hard to fire.

A growing conventional wisdom is forming among the elites—the opinion makers, business leaders, political leaders—that teaching should be a short term job, that they aren’t worth the government expense. While they probably feel this way about cops, too, current memes dictate respect to the men (and they are, usually, men) who fight—crime, terrorists, fires, and the like. Teachers, on the other hand, are mostly like elites except not as smart—because otherwise, they wouldn’t go into teaching—and far more female. Hence the emphasis on their supposedly weak qualifications and determined ignorance of all evidence showing the qualifications aren’t weak. To put it in political terms: the center-left is supportive of cops and critical of teachers in a way that’s relatively new. The bulk of the people defending teachers and criticizing cops (these days on stop and frisk) are way, way to the left.

Acceptable targets change over time. Teachers moved up the chain, cops moved down. Makes sense, really—the crime rate was an issue in 80s and early 90s, then crime rates improved. Meanwhile, we’d spent twenty years thinking that affirmative action and equal opportunity would end the achievement gap and that didn’t pan out—time to blame teachers.

So teachers should hunker down, I guess—attentions and fashions will change again.

Certainly, reformers are trying to discourage long-term teaching careers. I see no evidence that cops, judges, firefighters, professors, or lawyers, to pick a random sample, are studied for “effectiveness”, much less found to be more “effective” with years in service. Nor do I see any mention of police use of sick leave, judges’ work load, or state university academics use of sabbaticals. Somehow, the fact that teachers don’t “improve” with time on the job is put forward again and again as evidence that they should be paid differently than any other government worker. And it’s hard to see Andrew Rotherham’s otherwise ludicrous obsession with teaching pensions as anything but an attempt to increase the sweetener for short-termers at the expense of lifers, to encourage teachers to find another line of work after a few years.

But hey, that’s how reformers make their bones.

The problem with teaching is that all “sides” of the debate accept as a given that we are failing to educate our kids, that we could do a much better job. In fact, we aren’t failing, and there’s no evidence we could be doing much better. But so long as everyone agrees that “schools are failing”, teachers will be on the firing line, and “churn” will be seen as either desirable or not based on absurd expectations and beliefs.

Cops were rescued from public condemnation by a dramatic reduction in crime—which they may or may not have contributed to. Teachers won’t be rescued by a decreased achievement gap. We’ll just have to wait for a new scapegoat to another big policy problem. Alternately, for society to accept that we’ll never end the achievement gap.

Which means we better wait for another policy problem. Hey, folks, did you know that firefighters don’t actually fight fires?