Friday, August 13, 2010

Might Teacher Turnover Affect Schools?

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.


Deven Black said...

I worked for two years at a school with huge teacher turnover. My first year I was one of 22 first-year teachers out of a staff of 70. My second year I was one of two of that original 22 still there and there were 19 new teachers. That year 63 of the 70 teacher staff transferred to other schools and were replaced, mainly by new teachers. The following year the seven who remained from the prior year and 60 of the 63 new teachers left.

The principal was the sole reason most of us left. She was verbally and emotionally abusive, yelled at teachers in front of their students, and created an atmosphere of distrust and insecurity.

I suspect that bad leadership is the problem in almost all schools with high turnover. High turnover makes it impossible to create a coherent atmosphere for learning, a culture of safety and inquiry, or strong relationships beween teachers and students.

Students are always learning. In schools we pay far too much attention to the content of lessons and far too little attention to the lessons taught by the context in which those lessons are taught.

Roger Sweeny said...

What Deven said. And more generally, I suspect there is a lot of collinearity: schools that have other characteristics that positively influence student learning also have low turnover. In fact, that may be one reason they have low turnover. If you had been teaching at a successful school, you might still be there.

Jana said...

I teach in a school with high turnover. I don't believe it signals that the leadership in the school is bad, that it is a miserable place to work, or a poor job on hiring has been the problem. We have a wonderful principal who cares about the staff and the students and does everything in her power to make our school great. I believe our problem is the location - rural. Most of the teachers, including me, drive great distances to work every morning. I drive 70 miles one way to get to work. We have great teachers who care but who also have to think about their own families. When a job closer to home comes along, they take it. The school hires from the community when it can but not many people from the community are certified teachers.

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Sarah said...

I am very glad to see this subject being discussed. I don't have any evidence but my gut tells me it matters. I think the more children are confident that the adults around them, especially teaching them, know what they are doing, the better for their learning. Kids know when people are faking it.
Like Mr. Black said, kids are always learning so the context has to be as thoughtfully put together as the content.

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Unknown said...

I've worked in public, charter and private schools and was very successful at classroom instruction, however, that didn't matter in the eyes of the public school principal who felt I was a "whistle-blower" or the charter school head who believed I didn't "fit the school's mission." There are a number of problems which cause teachers to leave- most having to do with the administrators or the working conditions. At a charter school, teachers and staff are expected to give up almost all their personal time in a work day and commit to very long hours- and if you don't, you are not "mission aligned." The work expectations are nearly impossible to meet- and even as a successful, experienced teacher, I felt that if I wasn't working 10-12 hour days I just wasn't as good enough as those who gave up their lives for the school.

To retain teachers, schools need to focus on helping teachers to work efficiently within the scope of a normal, 8-hour work day, and be available to support teachers professionally to enhance their practice. It's truly, that simple.

Cory Bougher said...

I haven't read/posted in awhile but THANK YOU for bringing this topic up. I had a similar environment to you and Deven Black one blinked an eye about it (among all the other things that were allowed to go on)!

I once had a principal say to me that I should excuse students' behavior because their home environment was dysfunctional; by that token, we should excuse the students' school behavior and my work behavior because of a dysfunctional school environment! What kind of theory is that?!

Elizabeth Schurman said...

I think teacher turnover is a huge part of educational quality! So glad to read your post. I also went to schools with a very stable teaching force, and have observed at urban schools with high turnover. High turnover means no one ever becomes an expert, and there's never anyone to pass on wisdom that saves time and energy.

I work at a charter school. I don't think you can generalize about charters much-- they're all different, and that's supposed to be the point. At our school, I feel comfortable drawing boundaries about work and home life. The reason I've stayed six years at my school is because the staff community is so supportive and positive. Administrators have come and gone, but the institutional flavor and knowledge stays with the teachers.

Thanks again for the post.