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Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Where Teachers Are Replaceable Widgets, Education Suffers

By Robert Boruch, Joseph Merlino & Andrew C. Porter — April 03, 2012 3 min read

We have become convinced that in our nation’s struggling urban schools, teachers and would-be education reformers are battling through a hurricane that shows no signs of abating. We call this hurricane “churn.”

Churn is a remarkable instability among school personnel that makes it nearly impossible to build a professional community or develop long-term relationships with students. It happens when teachers are treated like interchangeable parts who can be moved around cavalierly to plug a hole in a school schedule. It happens when administrators repeatedly order teachers to switch to a different grade, teach a different subject, or move to a different school.

We recently tried to test an idea for improving the middle school science curriculum through a multiyear randomized controlled trial in a big-city public school system. But the constant stream of teachers leaving the classes we were studying made it nearly impossible to get reliable results. After just one year, 42 percent of the teachers in 92 schools who began participating in our study had left it to take other positions within and outside the schools. The instability was about the same in both the intervention group and the control group.

Attrition among teachers is a well-known problem in urban schools. As many as half of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years. And even if they don’t switch careers, many new teachers leave urban schools for jobs in the suburbs. A newly released study from the Center for Longitudinal Data in Education Research shows the harm that teacher attrition does to student achievement.

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But we think churn may be an even bigger problem for schools and districts. In the urban schools we studied, internal instability was worse than attrition. For every two teachers who left the district or the profession during our study, another three were moved from subject to subject, grade to grade, or school to school.

Unfortunately, this degree of churn is hardly unusual. Other researchers have noted a similar or even greater degree of instability among urban teachers. (We know less about churn in nonurban schools.)

Indeed, churn is such a fact of life in urban schools that most people who are working to improve education here in the United States—educators, researchers, and policymakers alike—have come to accept it as so much background noise. That’s why one of us coined the phrase “ambient positional instability” to describe it. Recently, at our request, a graduate student reviewed the results of randomized controlled trials in a major peer-reviewed journal. Of 19 articles in which the researchers detected no effects from their intervention, not a single one considered churn as a possible reason for this failure.

In other words, we as a profession are ignoring churn. We think that’s wrong.

In our view, two people are especially well positioned to help us start tackling the problem of churn: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. We challenge them and everyone who’s working to reform our urban schools—from politicians to policymakers to scholars like ourselves—to stop treating churn, or ambient instability, as background noise and start treating it as a problem to be solved. Until we do, churn will keep undermining our best efforts.

We think that churn is hurting kids in urban schools, and hurting them badly.

It hurts them directly, right in the classroom, because teachers are shifted around so often that they can’t develop deep mastery of a grade and subject, or develop stable professional learning communities to support their work.

And churn hurts kids indirectly, when researchers like us can’t tell whether proposed education reforms are good or bad because the instability weakens even the most carefully designed studies and skews our results. We even suspect that internal churn is a major factor in attrition, driving new teachers right out of the profession.

And churn isn’t a problem only among teachers. Many urban districts see astonishing instability among principals, central-office staff, and, at the very top, superintendents. As a result, teachers constantly have to adjust to new leadership styles and new priorities.

The bottom line is that in a hurricane of churn, you can’t build the culture of trust and safety that kids need to learn. If we’re serious about turning our urban schools around, it’s time to devote serious resources to doing something about churn.

A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2012 edition of Education Week as Where Teachers Are Treated Like Widgets, Education Suffers

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