Federal Opinion

Duncan Worries About Losing “Great Young Talent": What About Us Old Timers?

By Anthony Cody — August 29, 2011 8 min read
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Last week during Arne Duncan’s Twitter Town Hall there was one phrase that keeps sticking in my mind. John Merrow asked him what his message is for teachers who feel under attack.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s response included this:

“We have to do everything we can to support teachers. I worry about losing too much of our great young talent.”

It is hard to disagree with this. I spent the last four years leading a program in Oakland designed to do just that. We created TeamScience to give novice science teachers a professional community to belong to, offering them experienced colleagues as mentors as well as workshops, curriculum and professional development. We did this because we have a huge turnover issue among our science teachers. Most of the vacancies are filled with interns from Teach For America and other programs, and three years after they start, 75% of these teachers have left the District.

I served as a mentor myself to more than a dozen of these interns over the past few years. As with almost all beginning teachers, they start out very green and have a great deal to learn. These interns have usually only had a six-week long summer training program to prepare them, so the learning curve is steep.

We wanted to retain these teachers for a number of reasons. First of all, it takes a huge investment of energy and resources to support beginning teachers. The District pays thousands of dollars to underwrite their recruitment and summer training. In our TeamScience program, we pair them with mentors who meet with them weekly, and offer them extensive support. We tailor much of our professional development to serve beginning teachers, to make sure their students have access to a solid hands-on science curriculum. These novices are learning a great deal in their first three years. When they depart, they take this investment and expertise with them, and the students get a fresh recruit in their place, usually inexperienced and far less effective.

Our efforts made a dent in this problem. We were able to reduce the turnover of these interns somewhat, though the long-term outlook is less clear. The problem is that there are a number of systemic factors that promote turnover in urban districts like Oakland. Here are some of them:

1. When you recruit people into the teaching profession for a two-year commitment, and present the classroom as a stepping stone to greater career opportunities (as does Teach For America), it is not surprising that people leave after completing two or three years.

2. These interns are being placed in the most challenging teaching environments possible. These schools are often in neighborhoods where unemployment, poverty and violence are high. The interns are often unfamiliar with the culture and language of the students. The schools are under-resources, and overcrowded. This can be overwhelming for any teacher, let alone a beginner.

3. Our high needs schools continue to be under intense pressure to increase test scores. While Secretary Duncan deplores teaching to the test, almost every policy initiative he promotes raises the stakes attached to these tests. As a result, these schools tend not to be places where innovation and creativity are encouraged. Furthermore, the schools with the highest levels of poverty, and with the largest number of English learners, are likely to find themselves in that bottom 5% when the test scores come out, which subjects them to the “turnaround” strategies mandated by the Department of Education itself. This subjects teachers and administrators at these schools to the risk of mass firings or reassignments. These are not stable places in which to base one’s career. They are made unstable by official policy.

4. Oakland, like many urban districts, has so many demands on its limited state funding that teacher salaries lag behind many neighboring districts. That means even interns who decide to remain in the profession tend to move to another district, where they can earn thousands of dollars more each year.

So the question is, why are Secretary Duncan and many of our would-be education “reformers” so focused on retaining great YOUNG talent?

Sometimes it seems as if our education reformers have decided that one of the problems with our schools is that we have too many OLD teachers, because many of the “reforms” seem to undermine this group. We have concerted efforts to cut pension benefits. We have new policies being enacted that remove seniority protections for teachers, and instead allow layoffs to be decided based on “effectiveness” (usually determined by how well a teacher has raised test scores). As I wrote last month, the efforts of the education “reform” non-profit Teach Plus in Indiana were focused on protecting “promising young teachers” from the effects of layoffs. From Memphis, Tennessee comes news that an initiative funded by the Gates Foundation led the district there to choose to hire novice teachers rather than experienced ones. And last December, with no apparent opposition from the Department of Education, Congress acted to change the definition of “Highly Effective Teacher” within No Child Left Behind to explicitly include poorly trained interns, after a court decision ruled them out.

So why are young teachers so attractive?

Young teachers are cheap. These teachers in their first few years are at the bottom of the pay scale, and may earn only 60% of what a senior teacher might make.

Young teachers may be just as effective at raising test scores as experienced teachers. Many of the intern programs put great emphasis on effective test preparation, and schools that are under pressure to raise scores may find this very desirable.

Young teachers are malleable, and can be easily fired. They will not even have due process protections for their first few years, and can be released pretty much at will by the administrator.

What do we MISS when this sort of teacher becomes the solution?

A certain magical balance can be reached when you have just the right mix of experienced and novice teachers. The novices bring energy and fresh ideas, but the veterans bring precious knowledge of the school, the community, and the needs of the students. In Oakland some of our schools have lost that balance, as they may experience turnover of half or more of their teachers in a given year. Turnover of administrators is high as well, so it is not uncommon for schools to begin the year with the majority of staff starting anew.

Teachers are the heart and soul of a school. I was at Bret Harte Middle School in Oakland for 18 years, and when I started there, a number of my colleagues had been there for more than a decade, some more than thirty years. We were connected to the community, and taught generations of students from the neighborhood. This kind of connection to the parent community builds real accountability for student learning. When teachers turn over at high rates, continuity is broken and this kind of connection is much more difficult.

Students suffer because great teaching goes way beyond test scores, and many of these dimensions beyond tests deepen as a teacher gains experience. More experienced teachers learn how to connect more with individual students, how to better differentiate for diverse learning styles, and how to connect with a larger range of students. They learn more about the students’ cultures, and the specific issues that exist in the community, and this knowledge can help them connect on more levels with more of their students.

More advanced professional growth suffers. Beginning teachers are likely to be focused on learning how to manage their classrooms, or getting their basic curriculum together. They are less likely to seek out more in-depth practices like scientific inquiry, or Project-Based Learning. They may not be ready for things like National Board certification, Lesson Study, or teacher action research. If there is a critical mass of experienced teachers, then novices may join in and benefit greatly from this sort of activity, but lacking that, they are usually not going to be ready.

Experienced teachers see the novices come and go, and may not have the energy to invest in mentoring this revolving staff. Cohesion suffers, as do consistent management policies that keep schools running smoothly. Without experienced colleagues to offer support, novices are left to reinvent their curriculum and procedures, at great expense.

When we designed TeamScience, we wanted to retain experienced teachers as well. So we did our best to build a collegial community, and provide opportunities for the mentors to grow and be recognized for their expertise. While I agree with Secretary Duncan that we need to retain great young teachers, I am even MORE concerned about the great experienced teachers we are losing. For this reason it concerns me that when he is asked about teacher retention, he only voices a concern for the young ones. It also concerns me that many urban districts have come to rely on interns who make a relatively short commitment to the teaching profession, and turn over in high numbers.

We need to address the big reasons we are losing teachers, and fix these problems. Getting more “great young talent” to fill these vacancies is not a systemic solution. And while we may make some minor gains when we try to retain them, my experience in Oakland suggests that until we address the underlying issues that drive this turnover, more short-timers will not fill the void.

What do you think? Have we put too much focus on retaining “great young talent”? What about us old-timers?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.