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

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

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.