Education Opinion

What’s Driving Teachers Out?

By Jack Schneider — April 30, 2014 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

On Monday, Michelle and Jack began discussing the issue of teacher retention. They continue their conversation today, addressing some of the factors undermining teacher job satisfaction.

Rhee: I’d like to go back to a comment you made Monday. What, exactly, do you think is driving great teachers out?

Schneider: I think that teachers, in general, are over-worked. They’re asked to do more in eight hours than is possible. And so-called reform policies of the past decade have exacerbated this problem by limiting teacher autonomy while raising the stakes associated with teacher performance. As a result, teachers are now over-worked and over-stressed—worried that they’ll lose their jobs because of a statistical calculation that fails to capture their true effectiveness.

Many have decided this simply isn’t the profession they entered. And many would-be teachers are scared of entering the classroom because of what they hear about how the profession is changing.

In short, I think that teachers are increasingly being treated like factory workers rather than like professionals.

Rhee: But if we can agree that teachers are very different and should be treated as such, then why do our current policies treat them like interchangeable widgets? We pay them all the same (by years of experience) when there are huge differences among people who may have started teaching at the same time. We lay teachers off without any regard to their individual value to the school. We need policies that recognize that teachers are different and should be treated as such.

Schneider: Theoretically I agree with you. But the policies designed to evaluate teachers, reward them, or dismiss them, do not reflect what you’re saying. Setting aside the historical reasons for a flat pay scale—which largely have to do with gender equity—I think teachers might get behind something like pay-for-performance. But that’s only if there’s a way to fairly and adequately assess performance in all of its various facets. And how are you going to do that? With test scores?

The same is true of dismissal procedures. No teacher wants a dying-on-the-vine colleague. But the policies that are being touted as a way of recognizing difference are, ironically, producing a kind of monoculture in teaching. They’re going to turn our diverse corps of teachers into endless rows of uniformly bland supermarket tomatoes.

Rhee: I agree that teachers are feeling angst over the new policies that have been put in place. Any time you change something like the way people are being evaluated, you’re likely to have that dynamic, regardless of profession.

However, a 2013 MetLife study showed that only about 17% of teachers say they are somewhat or very dissatisfied. In other words, about 82% of teachers say they are somewhat or very satisfied. Though the study shows that people who are “very satisfied” are at the lowest they’ve been in 25 years (fell from 44% to 39%) there was also a slight decline in overall dissatisfaction in the last year. It’s also important to think about what the reasons for dissatisfaction are. Some teachers are dissatisfied because the policies that have been in place for some time don’t value the work that they do.

Schneider: Is 39% the bar we’re striving to reach? I find that figure deeply disturbing. And I think that the timing of that downward trend is hardly a coincidence.

Sure, there are longstanding reasons why teachers would be less than perfectly satisfied with their work. We’ve always asked teachers to do too much, failed to adequately compensate them, isolated them from each other, and kept them out of decision-making structures. But I don’t see any of those issues being adequately addressed by new policies.

Instead, what I see is a slate of proposals that are going to tip the scales and lead to a lot of educators packing up their desks and finding new occupations. Because it won’t be worth the headache.

Rhee: Remember, it’s a net 82% of teachers who are “satisfied.” One of the most disturbing facts to me is that our most effective teachers, as shown by a TNTP study, report that oftentimes no one is telling them they’re good and there is no attempt to try to keep them if they’re thinking about leaving.

That is incredibly disheartening to hear.

We should be celebrating great teachers and doing everything we can do keep them in the classroom. Clearly, that’s not happening now. I think retaining effective teachers is something we should hold principals and superintendents accountable for.

Schneider: Again, I theoretically agree with you. We should be celebrating the work of great teachers. But what constitutes great teaching? I’m not comfortable using test scores, for a lot of reasons we discussed last week.

I know great teaching when I see it, as do educators. So are you comfortable with letting principals and superintendents exercise professional judgment on the matter? Because I haven’t seen an algorithm that can do it.

And what, specifically, do you have in mind when you talk about retaining those teachers? What do you envision putting on the table for them, as an incentive to remain in classrooms? Because while money is nice, I think you’re going to run into a lot of problems trying to determine who gets what.

I think you can retrain great teachers more effectively by providing them with things like increased autonomy and opportunities for leadership. But again, I hear nothing about that from the reform community.

Rhee: Saying we should just allow other educators to observe teachers for their evaluations is exactly what the old systems were and we know those didn’t work. Teachers weren’t getting meaningful feedback from them. As I think we both said last week, there should be a number of factors that go into a teacher’s evaluation. And I happen to think that student academic growth should be one of those factors.

In terms or how we retain great teachers, compensation can be one piece. But it certainly shouldn’t be the only one. Opportunities to serve in leadership positions, grow their skills, or just plain recognizing their great work would be a start.

Schneider: You’re right; previous efforts to identify great teachers and keep them in classrooms have been flawed. But there’s a reason for that. Systematically identifying great teaching is extremely challenging.

What I hear from the reform community, however, is that we can use test scores and tie those “objective” measures to high-stakes decisions about pay and dismissal. I hear that the work is easy, and that the only thing blocking the way is the unions. To answer your earlier question: that’s what’s driving great teachers out.

To be continued...

The opinions expressed in K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.