Thursday, August 27, 2009

Burned Out on Burnout over Burnout Stories

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Generalizing about the problems caused by teacher turnover and attrition is generally useless. Turnover varies so widely across schools and districts that we can't say much of anything about it when it comes to the entire nation.

In the majority of schools in the United States, turnover is not the biggest problem. An awful lot of schools lose less than a handful of teachers each year. But to say that turnover isn't really a big problem is, in my eyes, worse than saying it is. Here's why:

While most schools don't have huge problems with turnover, the most troubled schools have the disproportionate share of turnover problems. And when we talk about education policy, the vast majority of discussion is focused on the most troubled districts and schools. What percentage of districts in the U.S. have even a single charter school? I'm willing to be it's far below 50%. And yet we spend an awful lot of time talking about charter schools. And rightfully so. Charter schools are a huge deal. They may or may not transform American education the way we want them too, but they're unquestionably changing the way that families experience public education in quite a few large districts.

And the same thing goes for turnover. Saying that it's not a problem is like saying that charter schools aren't a big deal. Many of the schools and districts we most want to reform have huge turnover rates. In high-poverty middle schools in the Bronx, for example, almost half of all teachers are in their first or second year in that school. And only a third have five years of experience teaching.

Coincidentally, many of the districts where charter schools are proliferating are the same ones that have had chronic turnover problems. I'm not sure how many charter schools there are in rural areas, so it's actually possible there are more districts with high turnover (say 20+% per years) in many of their schools than there are districts with charter schools.

So you can imagine my frustration when I read Jay Greene's piece about how burned out he is on stories of teacher burnout. He writes:

I suspect that these burnout stories are informed by and perpetuate a conviction that turnover in teachers in inherently a bad thing. It isn’t. What’s bad is a system that permits, through the inability to dismiss ineffective teachers, and encourages, through a a perverse pension system, people to continue teaching well after they have burned out.

First of all, I have a problem with people dismissing burnout stories, stories from which we can draw many lessons and glean many insights about our schools. Second, nobody's arguing that turnover is always a bad thing -- of course we don't want unsuccessful teachers to stay, and I have yet to hear 100% retention rate as a goal. But we're nowhere near that point in the schools and districts where turnover is a problem. Lastly, the story on pensions isn't that simple. While they undeniably disproportionately reward people who stay in the system for 20+ years (people who may or may not be burned out), they also reward people who retire in their 50s -- people who oftentimes would be willing and able to work longer.

At any rate, the next time you hear somebody say that turnover isn't a big problem, simply say "where?"


Unknown said...

Of course, Duncan has decided the best way to "fix" some schools is to burn all the teachers out, then fire them!

Burnout and anger are going to get worse under the reform regime, especially when we start to see more failures of the anointed, like KIPP, TFA, Green Dot, Michelle Rhee (now Kevin Johnson?!) and the rest.

You are right that burnout is an issue to be considered.

Claus von Zastrow said...

I found Greene's blog posting similarly disturbing. Why worry about working conditions when you can churn through teachers?