Two local news stories last weekend busted out a tired story line to support the attack on city teachers’ seniority rights. Carl Campanile wrote in the New York Post about how new small schools could lose high percentages of their teachers; and the Wall Street Journal’s Barbara Martinez profiled Stany Leblanc, an “excellent” teacher who, only in his second year, could lose his job to layoffs. On the surface, both stories are certainly heart-wrenchers. But there’s one big problem with the reporting: Nowhere in either story is it asked how long these teachers plan on staying in the classroom.
I’m sure Mr. Leblanc is a wonderful teacher. It sounds like his students are lucky to have him. But anyone who wants to use him in an argument for how very difficult decisions should be made surely better seek out how long he, and others like him, will stay in the classroom. I’ll take a mildly effective teacher who will teach for decades over a highly effective teacher who will teach less than half of one in a heartbeat.
Here’s the bottom line: nearly 50 percent of teachers leave NYC schools within six years. For Teach for America teachers like Mr. Leblanc, that number is much scarier: Over 80 percent nationally leave within only three years. This cannot be lost in any discussions about teacher layoffs or recruitment. While Michelle Cahill and Talia Milgrom-Elcott at the Carnegie Corportation, McKinsey , Teach for America, and other high-profile voices focus on recruiting more highly educated candidates to the teaching profession, those of us in the trenches realize we do not have a recruitment problem; what we have is a retention problem. (I’m borrowing this phrasing from fellow teacher Ariel Sacks.)
As I’ve written before, turnover is the single biggest challenge my seventh-year school has faced. For every Mr. Leblanc I encounter, I face nine other new teachers who struggle in their first couple years. My school devotes tremendous resources, including a portion of my time which could be spent with students, in order to turn struggling new teachers into competent ones. But when these teachers leave after 3-5 years, our investment is wasted, and we have to start over all again with another new, struggling teachers.
Journalists need to start telling the story of what effect turnover has on the lives of schools and students, particularly those for whom school is the primary source of stability in their lives, and for whom teachers represent the strongest adult relationships they have. They need to start telling this story now before hard working, career educators are sacrificed in order to keep teachers who are going to leave in the next few years anyway.
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