First Person

Why Teachers Quit, And Why We Can’t Fire Our Way To Excellence

In the past few weeks, two major reports on teacher turnover and retention have been released. One was rolled out with extensive media coverage, and has been the subject of much discussion among policymakers and education commentators. The other was written by me, along with Teachers College doctoral student Clare Buckley.

The first report, “The Irreplaceables: Understanding the Real Retention Crisis in America’s Urban Schools,” was prepared by TNTP, an organization formerly known as The New Teacher Project that prepares and provides support for teachers in urban districts, and that advocates for changes in teacher policy. The second, “Thoughts of Leaving: An Exploration of Why New York City Middle School Teachers Consider Leaving Their Classrooms,” was released by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, a nonprofit research group based at New York University. (The research alliance published a report by Will Marinell in February 2011 that examined detailed patterns of teacher turnover in New York City middle schools apparent through the district’s human-resources office.)

There are some important similarities between the two new reports. Both surveyed teachers in large urban districts about their plans to stay in their current schools or to depart either for other schools, other districts or other careers. Both also sought to understand the features of teachers’ work on the job that were influential in their plans to stay or leave. The study of New York City relied on a large, anonymous sample of middle-school teachers: roughly 80 percent of the full-time teachers in 125 middle schools across the city. In contrast, the TNTP study surveyed smaller numbers of teachers in four urban districts (one of which appears to be New York City), and the surveys were not anonymous, because TNTP wanted to link teachers’ survey responses to what the authors viewed as measures of teachers’ performance, such as value-added scores or summary teacher evaluations.

The headlines from the two studies aren’t that different: In any given school, many teachers think about leaving, and it’s not easy to predict why some teachers are more poised to move than others.

The New York City study suggested that the rhythms of teachers’ lives matter, including their pathways into teaching and the positioning of teaching in a life with adult family responsibilities. The teachers prepared through alternate routes such as the NYC Teaching Fellows and Teach For America — 26 percent of those surveyed — were more likely to consider leaving their classrooms and schools, even when other teacher characteristics were taken into account. And teachers who were separated, widowed, or divorced, and those with responsibilities for raising children, were less likely to think about leaving, perhaps because of the financial risks. Commuting, too, takes a toll, with teachers who commute an hour or more each way to their jobs more likely than those with shorter commutes to think of leaving their current schools — but not more likely to think about leaving teaching altogether.

But regardless of teachers’ biographies, administrative leadership and support — and student behavior and discipline — matter a great deal. Teachers are more likely to consider leaving their classrooms if they believe they aren’t getting adequate support from their principals, and if they believe the school doesn’t function well as an organization. Good leadership is not randomly distributed among schools; on average, New York City teachers report less satisfaction with the leadership in schools serving high concentrations of low-achieving, high-need students.

The key divergence between the two studies is that the TNTP report sought to identify high-performing teachers — whom the authors labeled “irreplaceables” — and low-performers. These groups, the TNTP authors believe, are stable; a teacher identified as a high-performer early in his or her career is likely to stay that way, and low-performers, although they may work just as hard, unfortunately rarely get better. Rather than try to provide extensive support to struggling teachers early in their careers, TNTP argues, it’s more efficient to invest in retaining the “irreplaceables,” and to counsel out — or move more aggressively to push out — low-performers who may well be replaced by teachers who will be “better.” To date, the authors suggest, principals have not been this strategic, leaving who stays and who leaves pretty much up to chance.

I’m less sanguine than the TNTP authors about the ability to easily identify those teachers who are “irreplaceable” and those who are — what? Expendable? Disposable? Unsalvageable? Superfluous? The terms are so jarring that it’s hard to know how a principal might treat such a teacher with compassion and respect. Given what we know about the instability from year to year in teachers’ value-added scores as well as the learning curve of novice professionals, a reliance on a rigid classification of teachers into these two boxes seems unrealistic.

I don’t doubt that there are some individuals who are natural-born teachers, just as Michael Phelps has shown himself to be a natural-born swimmer, and perhaps their talents are revealed on Day One. But there are thousands and thousands of children and youth around the world who are competitive swimmers, and none of them is Michael Phelps. For these children and youth, as for most teachers — and there are approximately 3.5 million full-time K-12 teachers in the United States — technique and practice can yield great improvements in performance. This is perhaps even more true in teaching than in swimming, as there are many goals to which teachers must attend simultaneously, rather than just swimming fast to touch the wall as soon as possible.

Principals must, it seems, strike a delicate balance, seeking to cultivate a professional community of successful teachers through a mix of selection, “de-selection,” and professional development. But even in systems that view principals as “mini-CEOs” of their schools, knowledge of teaching practice is distributed throughout the school and district.

It’s true that teacher professional development is often weak and ineffective, and, particularly in the early career, probably requires a more coherent strategy and division of labor than currently exists in most school districts. But that’s not a convincing rationale for giving up on professional development for all teachers in favor of the quick termination of those teachers who don’t hit the ground running.

There’s a reason revolving doors are frequently out of order.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan famously said, “You can’t fire your way to the top.” TNTP apparently disagrees. For once, I agree with Arne — mark the date.

This post also appeared on Eye on Education, Aaron Pallas’s column at The Hechinger Report.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.