An awful lot of people seem to think that firing more teachers would solve all our problems, especially if those people are economists.
This Slate piece details a recent paper by economists whose simulation says we should fire 80% of all new teachers within two years in order to have the best teachers in the classroom. And I recently saw a link to this piece, entitled "Does Teacher Turnover Matter?", tweeted by an economist.
The unifying theme between the two pieces is a significant downplaying of how high levels of teacher turnover and attrition might impact a school's culture or climate and, subsequently, its students. I taught in a middle school in the Bronx that had average levels of turnover for a high-poverty school in NYC -- that is, about 50% of the teachers were in their first or second year in the school, and only one-third had five or more years of experience.
So what? Here's the smell test that I think we need to start using more frequently in education policy discussions. Would you want your kids to attend a school with such a teaching force? Why or why not?
To me, that level of turnover signals that something's wrong: either the school is a miserable place to work, it's doing a really poor job of hiring the right people, or both. And I'd rather my kid attended a school with a bit more stability.
I remember when I was little and had babysitters ten years my senior -- and I was always amazed because they'd had the same elementary school teachers that I had (or at least other teachers I knew of at the school). There certainly wasn't zero turnover at our school, but it was low enough so that we could build some community and institutional memory.
And I don't see much discussion of school community, culture, or climate in these policy proposals thrown out by economists. Yes, there are bad teachers out there. Yes, if we had better teachers it would probably be a good thing. But let's not pretend that every teacher is an island. Teachers and students are all part of community that they interact with throughout every day.
It seems logical to me that the amount of teacher turnover in a school would affect the way that school operates. A school like the one where I tuaght with a revolving door is always struggling to stay afloat while a teacher with a stable workforce can focus on taking the next steps. Our school filled with wide-eyed newbies was a place for kids to come and do as they chose. The school I attended when I was young was a place to go and listen to the teachers and principal. And that's, in part, because the teachers had long been established there -- the parents, kids, community, and PTA all knew most of the teachers fairly well.
One of the first things I looked into when I entered academia was the way that teacher turnover influences student learning. Surprisingly, I didn't find all that much. We do have some limited evidence that it matters, at least in high-poverty, urban schools, but there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of other research on the topic.
Regardless of the state of the research, though, I think we need to think a little more critically when we read all these articles advocating more teacher firings and diminishing the effects of teacher turnover. Teachers matter -- and we shouldn't allow those who don't care to remain in the teacher force -- but schools matter too, and we need to think about how firing teachers might impact a school before we decide it's a good idea.