Michelle LaMarca might well have been working in a traditional public school this year if the state of Massachusetts had been able to say her credentials could be processed in less than five months.
Neema Avashia has a teaching job much like the one Ms. LaMarca was seeking in Boston, but she is disturbed that many of the younger teachers at her school are weighing whether they will stay for the coming school year.
Ms. LaMarca, 28, and Ms. Avashia, 29, know firsthand that their profession is not living up to its potential. And they know, too, that the shortcomings are making it hard to keep talented Generations X and Y teachers in the classrooms where they are needed most.
As of December, the two women have been given a chance to do something about it.
They are among the first 16 Teaching Policy Fellows named by the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy in Cambridge, Mass., a nonprofit organization that brings together educators and policymakers to improve public education in Massachusetts.
Under the center’s guidance, the fellows—all from urban schools in Boston and adjacent districts—are prepping for advocacy while they remain in the classroom. The eventual aim of their work is to promote ways to retain teachers like themselves, who have made it successfully through the first years of teaching but may not stay a lifetime.
“When I found out about the fellowship, I was instantly grabbed by the goals,” said Ms. LaMarca, who took a job teaching 8th grade English at the Excel Academy Charter School in Boston after learning that her license wouldn’t come through in time for a position in a district school. “Teacher retention is a huge issue, and something has to change.”
According to the center’s statistics, 47 percent of Boston teachers leave the district after three years or less in the classroom. The loss is expensive, both in terms of expertise walking out the school doors and the cost of replacements. In the 2004-05 school year, for example, the district spent $3.3 million on hiring and training teachers to take the places of early leavers, the center says.
In the last decade or so, with alarms sounding about the retirement of Baby Boom-generation teachers, recruitment and entry into the profession have significantly changed for the better, said Celine Coggins, who directs the center’s teaching-quality initiatives and leads the fellows’ program. Retention, though, “has been a tougher nut to crack.”
“Modernizing the teaching profession is not happening at a quick-enough pace,” said the 34-year-old Ms. Coggins, “and we are losing tons and tons of people for that reason.”
Network of Advocates
High-achieving teachers in the target range of two to nine years of experience leaped at the chance to influence policy through the fellows’ program, which is being underwritten by the Boston Foundation, a civic group, Ms. Coggins said. Five candidates applied for every one picked.
The final choices, who are paid just $1,200 for each of the two school years of the program, work in both traditional public and charter schools. About half entered the profession through either Teach For America, which places recent college graduates in struggling schools for two years, or the Boston Teacher Residency, which gives aspiring teachers hands-on training and a stipend in exchange for a commitment to teach in the district. By design, seven are teachers of color.
In monthly, four-hour seminars supplemented by online discussions, the fellows are exploring policy and research on topics such as teacher pay and evaluation, leadership roles for teachers, and teacher pensions. By next school year, they will move on to projects aimed at having an impact on public thinking and action in Massachusetts and in their districts.
Ms. LaMarca is helping flesh out a plan for coupling a cadre of experienced teachers with a skilled administrator to turn around low-performing schools. Ms. Avashia’s group is sketching “hybrid” jobs that would allow teachers to contribute in the classroom and beyond.
A big bonus for the teachers is becoming part of a network with like-minded peers.
Engaging in the big-picture conversation—that was really lacking for me until this year in this program."
“It’s nice to be having this conversation with other people who ‘get it,’ too,” said Ms. Avashia, who earned a master’s degree in education policy before beginning work as a social studies teacher at John W. McCormack Middle School in Boston. “Engaging in the big-picture conversation—that was really lacking for me until this year in this program.”
Betty Achinstein, a researcher at the New Teacher Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who studies teacher socialization, praised the project for its intent to create “agents of change” among early- to mid-career teachers. She also lauded a design that includes the built-in supports of a cohort and the Rennie Center, which already has standing among policymakers.
The researcher highlighted the tension, though, between the time and energy needed for effective advocacy and improved classroom practice. “They still need to develop their own practice,” she said. “They aren’t done there.”
She also advised an advanced step in the grooming of the advocates. “They’ll need mentoring or an apprenticeship,” she said.
Tom Carroll, the president of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, said the Teaching Policy Fellows project is badly needed because the rate of attrition from the profession has been rising.
“This is a serious problem,” he said. “We need to listen to these young teachers and to what they are saying about why they leave.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 30, 2008 edition of Education Week as Mass. Urban Teachers Being Groomed to Help Sway Policy