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Keeping Great Teachers in the Classroom

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According to the United States Education Department, the country will need 1.6 million new teachers in the next five years. Yet a recent report by the nonprofit National Commission on Teaching and America's Future reports that “approximately a third of America’s new teachers leave teaching sometime during their first three years of teaching; almost half leave during the first five years. In many cases, keeping our schools supplied with qualified teachers is comparable to trying to fill a bucket with a huge hole in the bottom.”

With two-year alternative programs like Teach for America only able to fill part of the gap, the role of teacher retention in solving our massive recruitment task becomes a key question.

A new book by Katy Farber, Why Great Teachers Quit: And How We Might Stop the Exodus (Corwin), speaks powerfully to causes and cures for teacher attrition. It’s a book that is very much of the moment in contributing to the national education policy conversation. Farber wonders: What if we shrink the recruitment problem by stopping the hemorrhage?

In a recent speech in Arkansas, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said much the same thing:

"The Asia Society recently held an international symposium on teacher quality and they found that high-performing countries put much more energy into recruiting, preparing, and supporting good teachers—rather than on the back end by reducing attrition or firing weak teachers."

Duncan also sees a need to increase the quality of those recruited into the profession. Singapore, he noted in the same speech, "selects prospective teachers from the top third of the class and in Finland only one in 10 applicants is accepted into teacher preparation programs. They only pick the very best."

Unfortunately, high attrition rates work counter to improving the quality of the profession’s candidate pool. By increasing the scale of the problem, these rates make it more likely that we will need to lower standards for entry to the teaching profession.

The human tragedy of needless teacher attrition is striking. Many teachers spend years of their lives and tens of thousands of dollars on preparation for their careers. It is typical for new teachers to emerge with student loans that absorb 10 percent or more of meager starting salaries. The economic costs to society of people being educated for careers they quickly abandon are massive. It is an inefficiency of profound magnitude that we cannot afford as a nation at a time of economic crisis.

In Why Great Teachers Quit, Farber addresses three aspects of the problem: retaining new teachers who could become good; keeping good teachers who can yet become great; and, especially, helping great teachers want to stay in the profession they love. Based on interviews with hundreds of teachers nationwide, Farber’s book is an outstanding piece of qualitative research that goes well beyond simple analysis to offer practical, human scale solutions. Farber does not put forth massive program recommendations, but rather advocates multiple small converging solutions that can be implemented immediately by teachers, administrators, parents, school boards, and policy makers. The genius of the approach is that she replaces hand-wringing with practical action.

The book is divided into eight chapters, each addressing an aspect of the problem, such as standardized testing, working conditions, compensation, and the actions of administrators, parents and school boards. Each chapter follows a narrative structure that begins with a heart-wrenching anecdote of a teacher (usually a composite portrait) driven from, or on the verge of being driven from, the profession. From this dark beginning, Farber proceeds with an explication of the problem, suggestions for practical solutions that can be implemented quickly and inexpensively at multiple levels, and concludes each chapter with a message of hope.

A Practical Blueprint

I found myself asking after reading Farber’s book, what if the ESEA Blueprint took up some of her suggestions? What if Race to the Top gave points for states that established 30 minute duty-free lunches, regular bathroom breaks, and provisions for nursing mothers as the norm? What if voluntary standards for teacher working conditions and compensation analogous to the Common Core Standards were established—and adoption of these teacher standards was undertaken with equal urgency? What if states, municipalities, and LEAs received funding and recognition for adopting the “Precautionary Principle,” giving the benefit of the doubt in cases of building and environmental hazards? What if teachers were evaluated according to their own effort and achievement (which they can control) rather than that of others?

In a more general sense, what if politicians, policymakers, parents and the media consistently demonstrated respect for teachers in word and deed? What if teacher empowerment was encouraged in substantive ways under the research-supported principle that shared decisionmaking actually enhances administrative and policy effectiveness? What if teacher attrition rates received the same attention as student dropout rates?

Certainly, if these types of measures were adopted widely, relationships between teacher unions and all levels of government would become less adversarial, and teacher buy-in on the reauthorization of the ESEA would be more attainable, helping to retire NCLB with its raft of unintended and unwanted consequences. In addition the task of recruiting and retaining the millions of high quality teachers we need for America’s future would be easier, saving enormous amounts of money in education, retraining, and lost productivity.

Farber’s comment regarding duty-free lunch seems apropos here: “It seems like a small simple thing, but it is one issue in a fragile and highly built deck of cards.” The multiple, converging “small simple things” she suggests will make a profession in teaching less like a house of cards and more like a real career for smart, motivated and caring people.

In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch speaks of policymakers having a view from 20,000 feet. Why Great Teachers Quit brings the down-to-earth perspective of practitioners to the policy conversation and humanizes the quest, shrinking the distance between policy and practice. Farber’s book makes a practical contribution to solving real problems in education. Simultaneously tragic and hopeful, Farber’s book belongs in the hands of everyone who cares about the future of education.

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