Education Opinion

Why New Teachers Quit

By Katherine C. Boles & Vivian Troen — April 01, 2000 4 min read
We have to ask ourselves why, despite the billions already spent, the problems of public education remain intractable.

There is a story we tell at conferences about an education reformer who holds a seance in order to call up the ghost of John Dewey. Frustrated with the pace of reform, this person asks the great philosopher of progressive education how to bring about real change in American schools. “Do you want the realistic way or the miraculous way?” Dewey asks."Well, the realistic way, of course,” says the reformer.

“A million angels would come down from heaven and visit every classroom in America, wave their hands, and education reform would immediately become established,” Dewey replies.

“Then what would be the miraculous way?” asks the puzzled reformer.

“Educators would do it themselves,” explains Dewey.

The story always gets a laugh because no one knows better than educators how fiendishly difficult it is to institute lasting school reform. Recently, federal lawmakers haggled over how to spend some $2 billion on teacher recruitment and training. We have to ask ourselves why, despite the billions already spent, the problems of public education remain intractable.

We believe the answer lies in the nature of schools and the job of the teacher, both legacies of their 19th- century industrial-style origins, with principals viewed as bosses and teachers as replaceable workers on an assembly line. This history has bred a school culture of isolation and egalitarianism that effectively stymies all attempts at reform.

But don’t blame the teachers. Blame their job. Teaching is a flat career that offers no promotions and pay raises based almost exclusively on years of service or academic degrees (which can be in any unrelated or irrelevant subject). There are few external incentives or rewards for acquiring knowledge, sharpening skills, or improving performance. Too often, teaching is a dead-end job with low status, uncompetitive salaries, and poor working conditions.

Don’t blame the teachers. Blame their job.

Creative and highly motivated teachers need career options and professional growth to stay in classroom teaching. Yet teachers who try to improve their practice get little support. In the rigid school culture, star performance is discouraged by the egalitarian notion that each teacher is the “equal” of others. This is a system that rewards only seniority and not merit, knowledge, expertise, or contributions to the profession. If all teachers are equal, then none is outstanding, and there are no failures.

It’s no wonder teaching is a job that discourages longevity. According to some estimates, the best and brightest stay in teaching an average of five years before changing careers. That should concern those who would spend billions to aggressively recruit and train teacher candidates. After all, why spend the money when they are likely to leave the field so quickly?

If excellent teachers are to consider the profession as a lifelong career, then we must change the job in fundamental ways. Already, the movement toward what educators call “professional-development schools” (collaborations between K-12 schools and colleges for teacher training) is demonstrating that it might bring about that change. Professional-development schools aspire to a model similar to teaching hospitals, with students taking graduate-level courses in the art and science of teaching while working daily with a mentor teacher, much as an intern works with a veteran doctor. Teachers, much like doctors in teaching hospitals, lead some of the graduate-level courses, and interns observe master- teachers practice their craft.

Professional-development schools aspire to a model similar to teaching hospitals.

We helped pioneer this movement 12 years ago, when, as two classroom teachers, we founded the Learning/Teaching Collaborative of Boston and Brookline, Massachusetts. This professional- development school gives neophyte teachers the benefits of close supervision in the classroom. Just as important, it provides veteran teachers with opportunities to be mentors, time to engage in research and curriculum development, and a forum for sharing ideas and solutions in a team approach to teaching children and graduate students. Moreover, these veterans get extra pay for extra work. Many of them tell us that, were it not for the Learning/Teaching Collaborative, they would have left teaching years ago. Graduates from the collaborative are highly sought after and land jobs in the best schools (or the worst schools—their choice) in America.

Other professional-development schools are in place all over the country, from San Jose State University in California, to Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City, to Baylor University in Texas. This model could lead the way in the next generation of education reform because it chips away at the school culture that has plagued past reforms. Of course, more must be done to change that culture—instituting career ladders with opportunities for real promotions, pay raises based on achievement and performance, and a consequent strengthening of public awareness that teaching is a profession worthy of status and respect— but these schools are key first steps.

Yes, we need more teachers, and we need better teachers. But we have to give good teachers a job that shows promise for the future as well as fulfillment for today. Our society can no longer afford to perpetuate an education system that, by its very nature, expels the best of its practitioners so early in their careers.