Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Hole in the Bucket of Teachers

Many news outlets reported on a study from the Alliance for Excellent Education, which as you might guess from the buzzy name, is a DC based advocacy group that thinks CCSS is swell and aspires to have all students graduate with 21st century skills. Also, rigor.

What does the study say?

The study focuses on the attrition rate for teachers, and didn't provide much new information about those figures or their causes, instead recycling work from Ingersoll, Merrill and Stuckey done for the Consortium for Policy Research in Education. That particular paper was released back in April (I actually wrote about it earlier this year) but it didn't get quite the press that A4EE did. That would appear to be because A4EE called up Robert Ingersoll and worked with him to add something a little sexier to the mix-- a price tag.

The basic numbers remain the same. About a half million teachers move every year, that half mill about evenly split between Find Another Place To Work and Find Another Career To Work In. Difficult schools are more likely to lose teachers. The attrition rate is highest among newbies. Also, though A4EE doesn't port this info over from the CPRE report, it's worth noting that minority teachers have a higher rate of attrition-- bad news for meeting the need to have a teacher population that looks more like the students population.

The price tag is a sexy headline-writer (I don't think I've seen a single piece about this report that doesn't mention dollars in the headline). We throw the number $2.2 Billion around, based primarily on the cost of recruiting, hiring, and training new people (he also breaks it down by state). That has got to be a hard imaginary number to whip up, and in practice it has to vary greatly. I think my own district probably picks up new teachers for less than a grand, easily. But the number is effective counter-prop to those who think that if we could just fire all the old teachers and replace them with new ones, it would save us tons of money.

Why are we losing them ?

The report does link the attrition to more than money, saying that more experienced teachers help close the achievement gap.

Ingersol offers some explanations for the attrition:

Teachers departing because of job dissatisfaction link their decision to leave to inadequate administrative support,isolated working conditions, poor student discipline, low salaries, and a lack of collective teacher influence over schoolwide decisions. Ingersoll writes, “In short, the data suggest that school staffing problems are rooted in the way schools are organized and the way the teaching occupation is treated and that lasting improvements in the quality and quantity of the teaching workforce will require improvements in the quality of the teaching job."

The report cites research which indicates that social capitol-- the interactions and mutual support between teachers and staff-- has a positive effect on student achievement.

What should we do?

The report has several recommendations, led by an overhaul of new teacher induction for which they lean heavily on the work of the New Teacher Center, a group funded by the Usual Suspects, including Hewlet and Gates. But the NTC's ideas about teacher induction, on paper, are not bad. Radical things like, for instance, carefully selecting a good mentor and providing time for the mentor and new teacher to meet, yet another idea that doesn't exactly sound like rocket surgery, but which many schools can't quite get organized enough to actually do.

The five recommendations are
      * regular teacher eval with multiple measures
      * develop systems to encourage high quality teaching
      * comprehensive induction programs for newbs
      * school improvement processes should include analyses of school teaching/learning conditions
      * support and foster staff collegiality

Things the study does not say

The study does not say that we have a high teacher attrition rate because tenure and FILO keep chasing away brilliant young teachers.

The study does not say that more teachers would stick around if we had more merit pay.

The study also avoids some conclusions implicit in its own sources. Ingersoll clearly states that a lack of control over their own work is one of the frustrations that often drive teachers away. Based on that and my own interaction with, you know, reality, I'd recommend that school districts systemically structure themselves for greater teacher control and autonomy.

In other words, the study also does not suggest that giving teachers a program in a box and scripted lessons will make them more excited about staying in teaching.

Alternative theories

Are there other things to be learned from the attrition numbers. I think there might be. Let me take some shots here.

Teacher preparation. What are the odds that a significant number of those unhappy newbs are saying, "What the hell! This is nothing like what I expected!" Schools of education in my neck of the woods are increasingly struggling to keep up enrollment. They're also spending a lot of time teaching teachers how to do things like incorporate standards paperwork into their lesson plan paperwork. Are real live students in real live classrooms too much of a shock?

A slightly more radical notion-- is it possible that the high attrition rate is actually a good thing? Much of the discussion of teacher attrition talks about the departed as if they were all going to be super-duper teachers and it's a great loss to the system that they bailed. But is it possible that the attrittees include some people who really weren't suited for teaching, and they figured it out and got out and both they and teaching are better for it. Does a higher attrition rate mean we are getting a better crop?

There's more to figure out

The high teacher attrition rate is surely telling us something, and it's not that we need more merit pay or less job security. The sooner we can sort it out, the stronger we can make the profession.

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