Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Addressing Teacher Turnover in Education Reform

While numerous topics rage in the public forum regarding education reform, the finer details on the structure of teacher turnover are commonly pushed to the background. The only aspect of this element that acquires any significant attention are reformers pressing the point that a more effective means of firing ‘bad’ teachers needs to be developed within the scope of ending teacher tenure. Interestingly these same reformers fail to ask the question of who is going to replace all of these ‘bad’ teachers.

A simplistic idea to close the turnover loop is the belief that an increase in teacher salaries will drive a dramatic positive shift in the number of intelligent college students who select a career in teaching over something in finance or whatever else. Unfortunately individuals that tout this idea as an effective means of closing the teacher turnover loop, fire the bad ones and then use salary incentives to attract intelligent candidates, fail to acknowledge that intelligence alone does not make a high quality teacher and that salary alone does not dictate job choice. In fact the wheels may fall off this plan at the point of salary increases before even reaching the question of teacher quality.

There are two immediate problems with the notion that simply increasing salary will make teaching a more attractive option for those believed to be higher-level candidates. The first problem stems from a perceived lack of understanding of the rigors of teaching. Salary to work ratio is typically the defining factor determining whether or not an occupation can effectively recruit individuals, when specific interest in a particular profession is not a personal motivation factor. For example most medical students that have the opinion to select, due to their skill level, between a specialization or general practitioner select specializations much more often because of a higher salary and lower total work hours (basically a higher salary to work ratio).

With respect to teachers while reformers want to increase salary they also want to increase work responsibilities through various evaluation methods as well as more targeted testing, thus it is reasonable to suggest that there would be no significant change in the salary to work ratio. In fact depending on how the increase in salary is distributed (how much is added to base salary vs. how much is derived from incentives) the salary to work ratio may actually decrease making teaching a less attractive occupation for high quality college graduates. The troublesome issue is that the salary to work ratio can easily slip into a negative feedback loop where the lower it falls the less attractive teaching is to new potential candidates which mean fewer teachers replacing those that leave the profession which leads to more work for the remaining teachers dropping the real and perceived salary to work ratio even further.

The second major problem with the strategy of reformers with regards to turnover is that with 49 of 50 states currently running deficits and the public continuously wary of raising taxes to pay for civil services where is the money to raise teacher salary across the board going to come from? The procurement of funds to pay for these salary increases is another important question that most reformers fail to address. Teachers are part of the much maligned, chiefly by the Republican Party, public workforce thus it is difficult to imagine a legitimate popular outcry fueling this salary increase. Sadly one of the elements that haunt public education is the near-universal desire to pay teachers more, but the reluctance to bare the financial burden associated with that desire. Add in the problem with questions over whether government should sponsor more charter schools and/or school vouchers and the potential to raise the necessary funds to increase salary decreases further.

Why are addressing these two critical problems in the teaching turnover cycle important? Returning to the problems within the turnover issue, hiring potential is an important element because various estimates cite approximately 270,000 to 300,000 teachers leave the profession each year for some reason (retirement, quit, resign for some reason, etc.).1,2 Sadly in the next 5 to 10 years that number will increase further solely due to retirements from the slanted age demographic of the current teacher workforce. In addition to those increases suppose the zeal of firing ‘bad’ teachers sponsored by most education reformers catches on and 3% of U.S. teachers (approximately 3.5 million)3 in a given year are deemed ‘bad’ and fired over the first 5 years and then the ‘bad’ teacher ratio drops to 1%. So where are the at least 375,000-405,000 additional hires in the first 5 years going to come from with the serious potential for a decreasing salary to work ratio? What about the additional 305,000 to 335,000 for each year after this initial 5 until the demographics level off in about 15 or so years?

Unfortunately the suggestion by reformers to increase teacher salary does not even address the most popular reasons why, outside of retirement, that teachers leave their jobs. Lack of planning time (65 percent), too heavy a workload (60 percent), problematic student behavior (53 percent) and a lack of influence over school policy (52 percent) were all cited as a reason for leaving.4 Although these main surveys are from 2000-2001 based on the current environment in education it is reasonable to assume these concerns remain. Overall these responses lend more credibility to the importance of the salary-work ratio. An increase in salary may stop some teachers from leaving, but it is more rational to tackle these retention problems by addressing the issues that drive them instead of searching for indirect solutions. Until these other issues are addressed the probability of bridging the coming teacher gap will be very small.

Another element in hiring is teacher training. As is common with most proposed solutions, few specific details have been given by education reformers regarding how teacher training will change and evolve beyond simple criticisms and broad expectations. The popular idea is that teacher training needs to be more like medical residency, but few details have emerged beyond that simple comparison statement.

Clearly teacher training matters because one of the following two scenarios is accurate if there are the significant numbers of ‘bad’ teachers as reformers profess: 1. Current teacher training is adequate enough that new teachers are ‘good’ teachers when entering the classroom, but due to a lack of evaluation, general feedback and/or deteriorating teaching environment the teachers are unable to objectively determine what works and what does not work which lead to the slow corrosion of their skills changing some from good teachers to bad teachers; 2. Current teacher training is inadequate and the eventual determination of a new teacher evolving into a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ teacher falls to their natural ability and overall desire.

The first option does not appear very plausible in that while it is reasonable that some level of deterioration in skill may occur, this deterioration is more likely to be derived from overwork and stress rather than lack of evaluation; if teacher training was adequate then these new teachers would know how to recognize what works and what does not work on their own. The second option does appear to be valid in that numerous personal reports indicate that new teachers, even vaunted ‘Teach for America’ teachers, are not adequately prepared to teach upon entering a classroom for the first time after receiving their credentials.

Beyond addressing the teacher turnover issue is the fact that most school reformers do not appear to appreciate the scale issue involved in genuine and meaningful education reform. The sheer size of the public school system demands plans with stringent detail instead of the short-term applied resource specific niche systems dreamed for scale-up. If educational ‘reformers’ really want reform then it is time for them to stop looping sound bites and actually get into the specific and numerous concerns in the education arena, especially teacher turnover because if there are not enough teachers available to teach the youth of near-future all other reforms are rather meaningless.

1. http://completionagenda.collegeboard.org/teachers-leaving-profession

2. Solnet, Rita. “Fire our way to better education: is common sense MIA?”

3. Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition. Bureau of Labor Statistics. United States Department of Labor. http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos318.htm

4. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Teacher Follow-up Survey (“Questionnaire for Current Teachers” and “Questionnaire for Former Teachers”), 2000–01, Table 6. Washington, DC.

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