Professional Development Opinion

Response: Ways To Reduce Teacher Attrition In High Poverty Schools

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 01, 2014 10 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series on this topic)

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?

This question has obviously hit a “chord” out there since I’ve received many responses from readers over the past few days, and I’m looking foward to sharing them next week (there’s still time to contribute!). I’ve been a teacher for last ten years at a public comprehensive high school with a student population that is one-hundred-percent eligible for free breakfast and lunch. In Part Three of this series, I’ll be sharing what I think makes our school such an inviting place for educators and students alike -- we have many challenges, but teacher attrition is not one of them. However, it appears that our situation may be an exception to the rule....

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

Response From Angel Cintron

Angel L. Cintron Jr. is a 7th grade social studies teacher at Charles Hart Middle School. He currently serves as the chair of the social studies department, GeoPlunge Coach, DC SCORES assistant coach, and a 2014 CityBridge Foundation Education Innovation Fellow. Outside of work, Angel is a contributing author to “At The Chalkface” education blog (where you can see his more extensive post on this topic). You can follow him on Twitter at @angelcintronjr :

Student misbehavior, more specifically student disrespect towards fellow students and teachers, has to be, in my professional experience, one of the leading reasons why teachers avoid, or leave, high poverty urban public schools. Every teacher, albeit a novice or veteran, is taught to employ basic classroom management techniques, such as increasing positive interactions, utilizing student reflection forms, making positive or negative calls “home”, and conducting one-on-one, student-teacher conferences.

Despite employing a variety of classroom management techniques, severe student misbehavior still plagues many high poverty urban public schools. If policy makers want to retain, or recruit, more highly qualified teachers for the most challenging public schools, then they must engage in an open, honest dialogue regarding the challenges, needs, opportunities, and possible solutions for improving the working conditions for teachers.

The first step towards tackling the issue of severe student misbehavior is for the professional education community to agree upon a common understanding of the problem, itself. In other words, rather than ask “how” students act out, we must realize “why” they act out, in the first place. In my professional experience, severe student misbehavior, particularly within high poverty urban public schools, is often a result of academic struggles. In addition, students who aren’t proficient in coping with social trauma, or economic disadvantages, also have a tendency to “misbehave.” In other words, students misbehave, or “act out”, mainly out of frustration. They’re frustrated academically AND socially. Once we have a common understanding as to why students misbehave, then we can re-calibrate our efforts during the school day.

Therefore, in addition to focusing on academics, we must teach and equip students with a proven social-emotional skills set. The responsibility of designing and implementing this dual, or parallel, curriculum, i.e. academics and social-emotional skills, is a task for all stakeholders, i.e. the district central office, school administrators and classroom teachers. First, the school district must acknowledge the link between low performing, high poverty urban schools with severe student misbehavior. Once acknowledged, the district’s role should primarily focus on adequately staffing each school per specific needs, i.e. differentiated funding rather than employ one-size-fits-all funding formula.

Second, the school administrators’ role must focus on designing, implementing and analyzing a school’s behavior intervention policies. One way to curtail severe student misconduct is to invest in, and train every teacher with, proven social emotional best practices. Such an ongoing training mustn’t be a one-time professional development session. Instead, it needs to be consistent, engaging, practical, and timely. For example, social-emotional training must be offered during pre-service week, weekly collaborative meetings, and district-level sponsored professional development days.

Last, the classroom teachers’ role must focus on learning, incorporating, and employing a set of proven social-emotional strategies. For example, classroom rules based on social emotional development could foster positive, student-centered behaviors, and help establish a safe, learning environment. Subsequently, classroom consequences based on social emotional development could provide students with adequate space to express their frustrations in healthier ways. Teachers need to use an array of tools to educate the whole child, and not just the math and reading parts of their brains. Ignoring this primary role, especially within the 21st century, is setting our students up, unnecessarily.

We - the professional education community - must differentiate amongst our students. We need to determine which students are prepared to handle a full day of instruction versus those who need to spend time, during the school day, learning academic and social-emotional skills. If we continue to ignoring the need to educate the whole child, i.e. how to manage stress and cope with social-emotional difficulties, then we are setting teachers, particularly within high poverty urban schools, up for failure, or worse, a shortened professional teaching career.

I find many colleagues are full of passion, and genuinely seek to influence the lives of each, and every, student. With that said, teachers need the necessary tools to make the most impact, which doesn’t only include computation and reading comprehension skills. If you - education policy-makers - wish to retain, or recruit, more highly qualified teachers to work in high poverty urban schools, then you must allow teachers to teach the whole child, academically and social-emotionally. Then, and only then, will teachers cease to avoid, or leave, high poverty urban public schools.

Response From Paul Bruno

Paul Bruno teaches middle school science in Southern California and previously taught in Oakland. He writes about education on Twitter, on his personal website, and at This Week in Education:

When thinking about why teachers avoid or high-poverty urban schools (HPUS), Angel Cintron’s piece on the subject may be a good place to start. My experience is definitely that meetings, school culture, excessive school duties, and policies and mandates all undoubtedly play a role.

But do we also have hard data on the question?

It does seem to be the case that teachers in HPUS face a different set of challenges than teachers in other schools. Notably, teachers leaving schools with high rates of free- and reduced-price lunch eligibility are much more likely to cite student behavior issues or dissatisfaction with administrators as reasons for departing. They are also more likely to be unhappy with their “lack of influence” over school policies.

And yet, teachers in HPUS are not obviously more likely to leave their jobs than other teachers. A 2010 report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that 85.2% of all full-time public school teachers remained at the same job between the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 school years. That rate was just a tiny bit lower in “city” schools - 84.5% - but that’s basically indistinguishable from the rate in in suburban schools (84.3%).

Results were similar when looking at school income. Schools with one-third or fewer students receiving free or reduced-price lunch did, technically, have the lowest turnover rate: 13.6%. Turnover, however, was only slightly higher - 15.4% - in schools with 75% or more of students receiving FRP lunch. In fact, schools in between those two extremes actually had the highest turnover rates.

Those data do not perfectly map to “high poverty urban schools”, but they do suggest that HPUS have some unique challenges while also sharing many difficulties with other types of schools serving different populations of students.

The aforementioned NCES report provides some insight about these shared difficulties as well. Among public school teachers who leave the profession, roughly half say that their new career offers higher a salary, better opportunities for advancement, more recognition and support from managers, more autonomy, greater prestige, and a more manageable workload.

All of this points to possible paths forward for reducing teacher turnover, or attracting teachers in the first place, especially in HPUS. First and foremost, this may be a case where throwing money at the problem is a perfectly reasonable way to solve it. Higher salaries are not only (almost inherently) attractive; they also implicitly bolster a profession’s prestige. To attract new teachers, those raises should be available beginning the first year on the job, without the need for substantial seniority. This may entail smaller year-to-year raises over a career, and may require reductions in other benefits, but salaries should probably be raised across-the-board.

Many of the concerns cited by departing teachers, particularly in HPUS, relate to principals in one way or another, suggesting that principals can play a big role in reducing turnover. I’ve seen first-hand that a skilled principal can coordinate and promote teacher voice in a school’s decision-making while simultaneously enforcing consistent school-wide implementation of policies, especially discipline policies. Principal leadership is crucial to improving school climate and to making teachers feel respected professionally, but it’s also tricky. Education reform has unfortunately focused largely on teacher quality, but a shift in focus toward principal quality may be in order.

Of course, some high-poverty urban schools will always be difficult places to work relative to many alternatives. But if we decide that attracting and retaining teachers is something we need to improve in these schools, we’ll need to commit to making big changes to the way teachers are compensated and to how schools are run.

Thanks to Paul and Angel 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.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and will be starting the new year with ASCD.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to blog for free via RSS Reader or email.... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first two years of blog, you can see a categorized list of them here. You won’t see posts from school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking in the monthly archives link on blog’s sidebar.

You can also see annual lists of my most popular posts.

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 Two in a few days....

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.