ON THE AGENDA | SEPTEMBER 29TH, 2016 | Ryan MacDonald

To Keep Our Teachers in the Classroom, They Need More Support and More Of A Say

Teachers need to feel included in decisions that affect their students' learning. They also need to be included in decisions that impact their day to day working conditions.

Paul Barnwell started his teaching career in one of Kentucky’s most troubled and underperforming schools. As a 22-year-old with no teaching experience, he felt unable to deal with the culture shock of managing a classroom or with pressure from the administration to solve issues on his own. He quit at Christmas and wrote, “the odds of me thriving and staying at my first school were miniscule, as were my students’ chances of actually learning.”

In recent years, the threat of a teacher shortage has loomed large over the education reform debate. And while there is no doubt that certain areas are affected by teacher shortages, primarily low-income and rural areas, there seems to be deeper problem at work—teacher retention.

Teachers are leaving the profession at an alarming rate. Ten percent of teachers will leave before even finishing their first year in the classroom. Statistics show that low-income schools deal with much higher rates of turnover than affluent ones. According to Richard Ingersoll, a professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s education school, 15 percent of teachers leave the profession every year and 40 percent of graduates with an undergraduate degree in education never use it.

So, if we have a large number of teachers either not entering the classroom or leaving shortly after they get there, what is going wrong? How do we keep effective teachers in classroom where they are needed?

Teacher turnover has significant impacts, both in student outcomes and in financial costs to schools and districts. The financial cost of teacher turnover is $2.2 billion dollars a year. This is money that is spent on professional development, onboarding and training programs for teachers who either leave the profession completely or move to a different school district when teachers are not retained.

The effect on student outcomes is more difficult to quantify. New teachers, who we know are more likely to quit, are assigned to low-income school districts at twice the rate they are assigned to high-income districts. These new teachers are also assigned to teach core subjects like math or reading with little or no training and assistance.

A new study from Brown University shows that it takes teachers between three and five years to improve student achievement and that, on average, teachers’ ability to boost student test scores improved by 40 percent between their 10th and their 30th year on the job.

Researchers from Duke University found that not only did student test scores improve the longer teachers spent in the classroom, but also that these teachers had lower rates of student absenteeism and better classroom management skills. Research shows that student performance is adversely affected when teachers leave in the middle of the year or from year to year. This is a disadvantage to both students and teachers.

In order to keep effective teachers, we first need to identify what causes teacher turnover. While teacher turnover is caused by a number of factors, two of the most cited reasons are school conditions and a lack of engagement. The school conditions that cause teachers to change schools or exit the profession range from weak administration and no behavior management systems, to overload and unrealistic expectations. Low-income schools tend to suffer even more when teachers are not retained. In many cases, they are unable to keep veteran educators and thus need to hire new and inexperienced teachers each year.

Another reason teachers quit, Ingersoll says, is that they feel they have no say in decisions that ultimately affect their teaching. Teachers are not a part of the conversations regarding school schedules, standardized testing, or in some cases even lesson planning. This lack of classroom autonomy, he says, is now the biggest source of frustration for math teachers nationally.

Harvard’s Susan Moore-Johnson, director of The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, found several key factors that influence teacher satisfaction: having ample time to collaborate during the school day, strong and supportive principals, and a common vision that is shared and executed by the school. Teachers need to feel included in decisions that affect their students’ learning. They also need to be included in decisions that impact their day to day working conditions.

In order to improve teacher retention, especially for new and or inexperienced teachers, it is necessary to have stronger engagement around best practices between superintendents and schools, as well as between principals and teachers. New teachers need a network of support, especially in the critical first year and then the next four after that. Increasing access to mentorship, high-quality coaching and professional development are also ways to improve teacher retention. But ultimately the key is a school that has a vision of success and an administration that is working to fulfill this vision with teacher and student input.

Public Agenda has designed resources to give teachers a voice in the decisions that affect them. Download and use these resources at www.everyoneatthetable.org. Ryan is an intern with Public Agenda.


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