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How to keep good teachers? Fix the jobs

By Fannie Flono
Jack Betts
Fannie Flono writes on news, politics and life in The Carolinas. Her column appears on the Editorial pages of The Charlotte Observer.

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  • Reasons for teacher turnover

    • To teach elsewhere

    • Family relocation

    • Contract ended/not rehired

    • Other/unknown reasons

    Source: N.C. Department of Public Instruction


North Carolina’s report on teacher turnover for the last school year, released Wednesday, came just after I had read a compelling article in The Atlantic called “Why Do Teachers Quit?” and in smaller print, “Why Do They Stay?”

Predictably, the hubbub over the teacher turnover report is focused on the politics. Ideologues on both sides say the report boosts their argument about the impact of legislative policies on why teachers leave. Some say the higher teacher turnover in North Carolina last year – it went from 12.1 percent in 2011-2012 to 14.3 percent – is proof that the failure of state lawmakers to give teachers raises, plus policies that increased class sizes and slashed teacher assistant jobs, pushed N.C. teachers out of the state or out of the profession. Others counter that only a handful of teachers cited dissatisfaction as their reason for leaving – 887 out of the 13,616 – and just 455 said they left for a teaching job in another state so legislative policies really didn’t hurt much.

The report was for last year’s teacher turnover so any turnover impact of legislative policies from the General Assembly this summer aren’t really known.

But N.C. teachers have been quite vocal about their dissatisfaction with state lawmakers’ education moves this year – policies that have left them with bigger workloads and stagnant compensation. They marched, lobbied, complained and screamed in frustration. Some got arrested in Moral Monday demonstrations.

That higher numbers of them didn’t speak with their feet and leave teaching or their schools should hardly be interpreted as satisfaction with legislative actions. Next year, N.C. lawmakers should revisit those moves, especially their decision not to give educators needed raises. Pay isn’t the only thing keeping good teachers in classrooms but it is important nonetheless.

The Atlantic article, though, put the issue of teacher retention into the broader perspective it needs. Quoting Richard Ingersoll, a former high school teacher who is now a University of Pennsylvania professor whose research focuses on teacher turnover, the article pinpoints workplace issues as the crux of the problem. Quite a few of those workplace issues are often the result of lawmakers’ policies.

Ingersoll said one big reason teachers quit the profession is the “lack of respect” the job engenders – and he wasn’t talking about lack of respect from students. “Teachers in schools do not call the shots. They have very little say. They’re told what to do; it’s a very disempowered line of work,” Ingersoll said.

He and others cited a number of problems that hurt teacher retention efforts. Some are no surprise. Insufficient pay and student discipline issues were on the list. But there was also the huge workload teachers endure – an issue the public doesn’t adequately grasp and too often belittles by saying teachers have the summers off – which most usually don’t. “[I was] coming home with 65 hours of grading over two weeks,” said one teacher.

Ingersoll also pointed to teacher supports, parental involvement, and opportunities for career enhancement as key to keeping teachers on the job. And there’s this: “[Schools and school systems] in which teachers have more say – their voice counts – have distinctly better teacher retention,” Ingersoll said.

The article takes note of the particularly daunting task for teachers in low-performing schools and the toll it takes. “What people are asked to do [at challenging schools] ... you couldn’t sustain that level of intensity throughout a career,” Thomas Smith, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s education school told the Atlantic.

That might explain the truly troubling revelation in the N.C. teacher turnover report. It’s an issue on which policymakers should focus attention. The school districts experiencing the highest rates of teacher turnover are the ones that can least afford it – high-poverty, low-performing districts. Some will say it’s the least effective teachers who are getting purged, and that’s a good thing. But research on low-performing districts don’t really bear that out. In fact, data show that constant teacher turnover is a big factor in keeping academic performance low, and too often it’s the effective teachers who are among the first to seek jobs elsewhere.

In this report, Northampton tops the list with more than 35 percent of its 171 teachers, that’s 60, departing. It is followed by Halifax County where 81 of its 259 teachers (31.27 percent) left last year. Halifax, if you recall, is the only school district whose performance was so poor that the state intervened in 2009. Halifax has made progress academically since the state stepped in but its teacher turnover rate is volatile – going from 24.29 percent in 2011-2012 to 31.27 percent last year. Northampton’s rate went from 22.28 percent to 35.09 percent.

Both Halifax and Northampton top the list for the five-year average for teacher turnover, with 26.09 percent and 24.40 percent respectively. Fifteen other districts – most in the state’s poorer counties – had turnover rates of more than 20 percent. The national teacher turnover rate stands at 15.7 percent. The rate for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the state’s second-largest system, is 15.99 percent, close to the national average. Wake County Schools, the state’s largest district, is at 12.1 percent.

The cost of teacher attrition nationwide is high – more than $7.3 billion each year. So it is economically beneficial to get good teachers into our public schools, eliminating the constant churn of defections and getting them to stay put for the long haul.

In that respect, Ingersoll offers an apt observation:

“Respected, well-paid lines of work do not have shortages,” he said.

“To improve the quality of teaching,” Ingersoll told the Atlantic, you need to “improve the quality of the teaching job... If you really improve that job… you would attract good people and you would keep them.”

Well said.

Email: fflono@charlotteobserver.com.
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