Professional Development Opinion

Response: Building ‘Political Will’ to Retain Teachers in High-Need Schools

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 04, 2014 10 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here)

This week’s “question-of-the-week” is:

Why do teachers avoid, or leave, high poverty urban public schools and what can be done to improve the situation?

Educators Angel Cintron and Paul Bruno provided their guest responses to this question in Part One. Today, Barnett Berry and Ilana Garon share their thoughts.

You might also want to listen to two recent nine-minute podcasts I’ve done with guest contributors to this series -- Part One’s writers, Angel Cintron and Paul Bruno, talk about “Why Precisely Do Teachers Leave High Poverty Schools?” and Barnett Berry and Ilana Garon, today’s contributors, discuss “How Can We Reduce Teacher Attrition At High Poverty Schools?”

Response From Barnett Berry

Barnett Berry is the founder of the Center for Teaching Quality, a national nonprofit that’s transforming the teaching profession through the bold ideas and expert practices of teacher leaders. His latest book, written with colleagues Ann Byrd and Alan Wieder, is Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead but Don’t Leave:

Research has surfaced that approximately 40-50 percent of all teachers leave the profession within the first five years of teaching. Schools that serve 50 percent or more poor, minority children experience teacher turnover at twice the rate of those teaching white and wealthier students. So what is the evidence--and why do we ignore it?

Highlighting the Evidence

We now have powerful evidence that high teacher turnover harms student achievement. As reported in a recent commentary, high teacher attrition “hurts staff cohesion and the shared sense of community” required of long-term school improvement. And beginning in the 1990s, Richard Ingersoll, using a large data based assembled by the National Center for Education Statistics, consistently has found that teachers in high need schools, compared to their colleagues serving wealthier students, were much more likely to leave the classroom.

The primary reasons for the higher teacher attrition typically have been poor student motivation, lack of administrative support, and too little autonomy. A plethora of other researchers, including Susan Moore Johnson and yours truly have written about what it would take to recruit and retain accomplished teachers in high need schools:

  1. Working with (not just for) a strong principal who embraces leadership from the classroom;
  2. Teaching in a school where one’s pedagogical expertise is valued (i.e., no scripted curriculum);
  3. Having access to the right resources (e.g., classroom libraries, science equipment, current technology) in order to teach effectively;
  4. Serving with other classroom experts who are “kindred spirits"; and
  5. Having time to collaborate with teaching colleagues (i.e., recognizing that teaching is a team sport).

This research I published 10 years ago also points out that accomplished teachers would expect, and labor market forces would require, salary incentives to teach in hard-to-staff schools. However, incentives, while important, were not sufficient--and they needed to be more than just financial bonuses.

When asked again in 2013 by an Atlantic Monthly journalist why teachers quit, Ingersoll once again pointed out that teaching is “a very disempowered line of work.” We know full well--as defined by the classroom experts of the CTQ Collaboratory--that teachers need specialized and intensive preparation for teaching in high need schools, especially when considering the needs of students of today and tomorrow. We also know teachers need to work under the right conditions that allow them to teach effectively--as we documented in a 2008 research review and a CTQ TeacherSolutions team defined in their 2010 report.

At the top of the list is time for teachers to learn from one another and build the kinds of school-community partnerships necessary to serve high need students and their families. Recent research shows that educators in every subject area and role are eager to work together to deepen their teaching expertise, but only 21 percent of our nation’s teachers are given time to frequently examine student work with colleagues while only 10 percent of them frequently have the opportunity to observe the teaching practice of a colleague. So why do we continue to ignore this evidence?

Ignoring the Evidence, but perhaps for not much longer

Education is not the only field where evidence (or lack thereof) is ignored. For example, the White House knew before our invasion in Iraq there were no weapons of mass destruction. And social scientists have claimed that “evidence-based policy” is often trumped by “policy-based evidence.” This is clearly the case with teaching quality (TQ) policy where reform debates evoke a larger set of issues over the role of public education in America where one camp seeks to professionalize teaching while another pursues ways to deregulate it.

The latter camp has been winning the day.

The solutions, like the ones I described above, fly in the face of the narrative of the deregulation camp. For these reformers, the TQ problem is too many incompetent and/or lazy teachers teaching in high need schools, not the conditions under which they work. Recruiting more academically abled young people, with quick entry into the classroom, is the ticket. These new recruits do not have to teach long; they just need to work long hours to ensure that their students perform well on high stakes standardized tests. As a result the evidence on the poor working conditions that contribute to our nation’s high teacher attrition rates offers an education policy version of an “inconvenient truth.” America’s $600 billion public education enterprise offers much opportunity for those who can control the resources and how they are allocated.

However, it is now becoming more evident to the public that teacher turnover costs our nation’s school districts approximately $7 billion annually for recruiting, hiring, and training. And well-respected school reformers like Marc Tucker, with experience building bridges across political divides, points to top performing nations and how they invest in teacher preparation and create the kind of working conditions that matter most for teaching effectiveness (like the ones highlighted above). The media has bashed the teaching profession for decades.

In addition, teachers, with the help of Internet-based, virtual communities like the CTQ Collaboratory (and resources like Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day) are beginning to learn more about and act on best TQ policies from both empirical studies as well as practices from abroad. Soon teachers will be heard more clearly by a public that increasingly trusts them far more than the policymakers and reformers who make the rules. A recent poll shows that almost 80 percent of American adults under the age of 40 have trust and confidence in today’s teachers--boding well for the respect that teachers will be afforded in the years ahead. We know what to do technically to recruit and retain teachers for high need schools. Now we just need to build the political will to do so--and it appears the foundation, after more than two decades, may be beginning to take shape.

Response From Ilana Garon

Ilana Garon (@IlanaGaron) teaches high school English in the Bronx. She is the author of “Why Do Only White People Get Abducted by Aliens?": Teaching Lessons from the Bronx (Skyhorse Publishing, 2013) and writes a blog called The View from the Bronx for Education Week Teacher. She lives in New York City:

A young friend of mine whom I’ll call “Daniel” was recruited in the TFA cohort of 2009 to teach English Language Arts, he jumped at the chance. A gregarious young man with a passion for literature and history, an unflappable demeanor, and a natural “way” with kids, Daniel’s success in the classroom seemed almost certain. He underwent summer training in Phoenix, Arizona, working with kids who--while they struggled with English as a second language--were well-behaved and hard-working for the most part. That fall, he entered a middle school in one of the poorest greater-New Orleans-area parishes, determined to put his newly developed skills to work.

Things did not go as planned. For starters, Daniel spent his first year working as a librarian instead of in the position for which he had been trained. Moreover, the school at which he worked was an alternative program for kids who had been expelled or suspended from their schools; Daniel formed great relationships with these students, though he remarked that summer training in Phoenix did not approximate the behavioral challenges he and his cohorts faced in high poverty areas of New Orleans. At the end of the year, he lost his position due to budget cuts. After working at a second school for another two years, when it looked like cuts were going to cost him his job again, he left teaching and ended up working for a nonprofit.

When Daniel told me he was leaving teaching, I was disappointed--but not in him. As a teacher in a high-poverty school myself, I understood well the issues he was facing. I could only share his frustration with the instability of his employment, as well as the lack of sufficient or meaningful training, both prior to beginning teaching and during his time in the classroom.

These were the among the same issues my cohort of teachers had faced six years prior, when we began teaching in New York City. Another problem I keenly remember was that the teachers assigned to mentor us seemed uninterested, and were not held accountable for meeting with us. As a result we fumbled blindly through our lessons, often taught in inappropriate classrooms (e.g. English in the library with seven other classes) or without the right materials, while unsympathetic administrators looked on scornfully. Behavior problems with students were a regular issue; our evening pedagogy classes tended to be far more theoretical than practical. And within two years, many of us were “excessed” when the school budget was slashed, and had to look for other positions. I would estimate that about 40% of us stayed in teaching after our first three years.

All of these obstacles have been exacerbated of late by the uneven roll-out of Common Core (with the expectations that teachers will--with minimal to no training--immediately transform all materials to align with the standards), along with the current teacher evaluation systems, which seek to “weed out” the bad teachers without plans in place to improve teaching practice. These types of scare-tactics demoralize all teachers, particularly new ones, pushing them out of the classroom even faster.

How do we keep teachers in high-needs schools? Provide them with placements that leverage their talents and interests, and offer job stability (along with reasonable salaries); give them dedicated mentors throughout the first couple of years who are seasoned teachers in their subject areas; provide relevant pre-service training, followed by continued meaningful professional development--particularly emphasizing classroom management; train administrators to be supportive of these new teachers so they don’t get chewed up and spit out immediately by a demanding profession with a steep learning curve. If even some of these changes are implemented, more teachers would stay beyond the three-year mark.

Thanks to Barnett and Ilana for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll be publishing comments from readers next week.

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Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Last, but not least, I’ve recently begun recording a weekly eight-minute BAM! Radio podcast with educators who provide guest responses to questions. You can listen and/or download them here.

Look for Part Three in a few days....

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