I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

More On Teacher Attrition

I've been thinking about Derrell Bradford's stance on teacher attrition. We both agree it's a problem and that large numbers of teachers - 50% by many estimates - leave within five years.

I brought up this fact in the context of an argument about teacher evaluations. Bradford argues that if teacher evaluations were accurate, there would be fewer teachers rated as "satisfactory" or higher. I argue that the high rate of teacher attrition shows that many ineffective teachers must be leaving; that attrition is a sign of self-policing.

Bradford's rebuttal (if you can call it that - Twitter is hardly the place to make a nuanced argument) is that work conditions cause the high attrition rate. In the context of our argument, he seems to be saying that these teachers are not necessarily ineffective; they just don't like the conditions of the job. When teachers leave, it isn't because they are bad at teaching; they're actually good at it, but it's too difficult. But not so difficult that "bad" teachers don't stay on.

Understand that I have a distinct advantage over Bradford (argument by authority alert - hey, it's my blog): I've actually taught, been through a teacher training program, have a master's in education (as well as a master's in the field in teach) and have mentored several student teachers and alt-route teachers. Derrell has not. And, given my experience and training, his argument doesn't fly, for several reasons:

- If what Bradford is saying is true, the majority of people who are "bad" teachers somehow put up with the poor working conditions, all the barriers to entry (college degree, PRAXIS exam, student teaching/alt route teaching, tuition payments, etc.), the lower pay scale, and so on, just so they could not just get tenure, but get enough years in the field so that the last-in/first-out policy actually pays off for them.

Does that make sense to you? Someone who is bad at their job, and supposedly doesn't like it, puts up with poor working conditions, while someone who is good at their job, and supposedly does like it, does not put up with those same conditions?

- Every teacher will tell you the first year is the hardest. You work more on lessons, you spend more time dealing with logistics, you create lessons for the first time you'll use in subsequent years, etc. The second year gets easier; the third even more so. It's a gauntlet, and it tests a teacher's commitment. And commitment is a requirement for success.

Does it make sense that many teachers become totally committed to getting the job, get through all those barriers, then work through all the problems of the first years, just to wind up sucking at it later?

- As I've written about on this blog many times, teacher pay has not kept pace over the last 20 years with the average wage in NJ - and yes, that's accounting for benefits for people with similar education and experience. Why would someone stay in teaching if they were no good at it and are making less money than they would doing something else?

The only reason would be that teaching accepts those who can't do other work that pays better. Which means the barriers I mentioned above - coursework, degrees, time, testing - must be so low that just about anyone can get this job.

Are you willing to make that case, Derrell? Because I think those barriers are actually higher than those in many other professions.

- In simple terms: people like doing things they are good at. People don't like doing things they are bad at. If you aren't good at teaching, you're most likely going to want to do something else. That's a powerful incentive to leave.

- Finally: I don't know if Bradford knows this, but you get your tenure on the first day of your fourth year as a teacher. Your tenure is not transferable between districts: if you leave to go to another district, you start off at day one on a new tenure track the minute you walk through the door (and that's why it's in a district's interest to offer tenure: if the best teachers could shop around at will for the best salary between districts and not pay a price in giving up tenure, districts would have bidding wars on their hands).

Which means anyone who is a bad teacher is simply not offered a contract in their first three years if they aren't cutting it. They aren't "dismissed" per se; they are just not renewed. These "non-renewals" are not reported as dismissals.

Anyone who's taught knows this is a big part of teacher attrition. I've seen it plenty of times. And it is clearly a major part of the high rate of attrition in the early years.

Having said all this: of course there are bad teachers who've gained tenure and seniority. People burn out. Or they can't be easily replaced. Or they had bad superiors who let them fall through the cracks. This happens in every field all over the world. And, as in all these other fields, there are many, many ways to remove people without "firing" them. Shift them to jobs and conditions they don't like and nudge them toward early retirement. Put them in less-vital roles. Sometimes they wake up and start performing well again.

And sometimes these people don't get the hint, and they have to be fired. I'm all for fair, effective ways to remove these people from schools, and I know that there are some teachers right now who should be removed. I have no problem with doing so - all good teachers (yes, I am a good teacher, thank you very much) get frustrated by colleagues who don't pull their weight. I support the NJEA proposal to streamline tenure cases.

But the 'formers, like Derrell Bradford, have not thought this one through. The few tenure cases that result in dismissal are not the only ways poor teachers are removed. Attrition is undoubtedly a big part of that, especially since it includes those younger teachers who don't get tenure. Early retirement is often used to remove teachers who've burned out. And there are plenty of other ways to incent poor teachers who've managed to slip through and get tenure to leave.

Look, I'll concede that there are undoubtedly good people who leave the field when they could have been good teachers. But that is only a part of the attrition, and a relatively small part at that. But even if it were a larger part of the problem...

... shouldn't we then be worried about the conditions we've created in the schools that are causing good people to leave? And how does slashing teacher pay by up to 20% do anything but make the problem worse?

And, when you get rid of all of these allegedly "bad" teachers - who will replace them?

UPDATE: Edited a bit for clarity.


CJ Serdy said...

Thank you for your clarity of thought on this issue. I have shared it with those who need an education on these issues.

Duke said...

Thanks, CJ. I cleaned up a few unclear sentences this morning - hope they visit AFTER I did that.