Friday, August 21, 2009

Teacher Turnover: Time to Say Enough

By Jack Gerson
Sept. 30, 2007

Teacher turnover is soaring in urban school districts and inner city schools across the country. It’s commonplace for schools to lose more than one-fourth—and sometimes more than one-half—of their teachers, year after year after year. Since studies consistently show a strong positive association between teacher experience and student learning, this exodus of teachers from low-income schools makes the sad state of our inner city schools sorrier still. It also spells increased instability for kids with little else fixed in their lives and for neighborhoods that are already desperately unstable.

Why can’t inner city schools retain their teachers? What can be done to address the problem?
Jonathan Kozol, in "Letters to a Young Teacher" (Education Week, August 29) takes issue with the prevailing wisdom that young teachers leave inner city schools out of frustration borne of inability to relate to minority students. Instead, Kozol points to
"the systematic crushing of their creativity and intellect, the threatened desiccation of their personalities, and the degradation of their sense of self-respect under the weight of heavy-handed, business-modeled systems of Skinnerian instruction, the cultural denuding of curriculum required by the test-prep mania they face, and the sense of being trapped within ‘a state of siege,’ as one teacher puts it, all of which is now exacerbated by that mighty angst machine known as No Child Left Behind."

There’s a lot of truth to what Kozol says. And it applies to veteran teachers, too—and even to teachers whose students score high on high stakes tests. Here’s an excerpt from an email posted recently to a national list:

"I returned to urban public school teaching last school year, after having left public schools before NCLB was authorized. The school environment and teacher satisfaction pre- and post- NCLB is like day and night. I speak not as a teacher who struggled with standardized test scores last year, but as one whose class reached 100% proficiency in reading and almost 100% proficiency in math (the one child who was not "proficient" came to third grade with a preschool level understanding of math - it’s a miracle that he scored as well as he did on a third grade math test). When the results came out my principal called me at home with the "good news". She asked me my "secret", how did I do it? Unfortunately, I wasn’t honest with her in my response, but I’ll be honest with you. I sold my soul to obtain those test results. For one hundred forty days I acted in complete opposition to my personal educational philosophy because I am a driven individual who wants to be at the top of my profession and right now NCLB defines what a "good" teacher is. It is imperative that educators take back control of our profession, redefine the goals and mission of our schools, and understand and support the means by which truly good teachers and school leaders develop."

This teacher is right. Educators don’t run public education. There’s been a hostile takeover of most of our country’s major urban school systems by the proponents of the "business model" for education—run everything by the numbers, "bottom-line" oriented. Treat school districts like corporations. Run schools as though they were "profit centers". Consider kids to be "revenue sources".

Not by accident, the advocates of the business model are among the most ardent supporters of the No Child Left Behind Legislation. The Broad Foundation (proprietor, Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad, the most outspoken proponent of the business model) has officially partnered with the U.S. Department of Education around the implementation of the No Child Left Behind legislation. And NCLB enforces the mind-numbing high stakes testing environment that is driving teachers out of public education and turning kids off to learning and creativity: Eliminate electives, focus on two subjects: reading and math. Dumb these down to the lowest (and—importantly—most easily quantified and measured) rote common denominators—kill and drill ‘rithmetic, narrowly focused phonics. Hold teachers and schools accountable for their students’ performance on standardized tests, and punish those that do poorly (even if most of that teachers’ kids live in group homes, or get only one meal per day, or have no quiet place to do their homework, or …). Schools that don’t measure up to NCLB’s ridiculous criteria—which means nearly all inner city schools—first get punished, then can be shut down or "reconstituted"—students and staffs scattered. After two or three years of trying to teach under these conditions, it’s no wonder teachers leave in droves. It’s a wonder that so many stay.

In addition to the reason Kozol gives for young teachers leaving inner city schools—the crushing of their creativity and intellect by the NCLB-driven teach-to-the-test environment—there’s another critical factor at work: the "philanthropreneurs" of the business model for education don’t view teaching as a career, but as an entry-level job into the business of education. Thus, many new teachers are explicitly recruited to be short-timers. Teach for America (TFA), for example, places its inductees in inner city schools for two years. Those TFAers who make it through two years have a large part of their student loans excused. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of TFAers walk away from their inner city school job after two years.

And now, Teach For America and the Broad Foundation are partnered in a program that will give new teachers still more incentive to leave teaching. According to the October 3 Education Week, TFA—with Broad’s assistance—has established a pipeline to facilitate and accelerate TFA teachers becoming principals. Select TFAers will be groomed to become principals as little as four years after college graduation—two years as a TFA teacher, one year studying educational administration at Harvard, one year as a "resident principal" (business-ese for principal-in-training)—and then, presto, principal.

This is part and parcel of the business agenda many of us recognize: force out higher-salaried veteran teachers. Bring in lower-paid new teachers. Press to cut back on health and pension benefits. Press for longer work day, work week, work year.

The combination of "standards-based" teach-to-the test rote learning with measures that accelerate teacher turnover can lead nowhere but down. This is bad for teachers, worse for schools, worst of all for students. It is high time—past time—to say, "Enough!"

• Scrap NCLB—increased federal funding for education, but without the high stakes testing-based accountability and punitive measures.
• Scrap the "business model for education". Quality education is the right of every citizen, and society needs to pay for and provide it.
• Make teaching a career, not an entry level job into the business of education. Decent compensation and livable working hours for all teachers
• Foster authentic mentoring—team teaching, pairing new and veteran teachers, with ample additional collaboration time