Why teachers quit, and how to fix that

Cydney Kramer, a 25-year-old teacher, helps students at Martin Luther King Middle School in Charlotte, Feb. 25. Unlike many young teachers, Kramer loves her job and has been called a “teaching phenomenon.”
Cydney Kramer, a 25-year-old teacher, helps students at Martin Luther King Middle School in Charlotte, Feb. 25. Unlike many young teachers, Kramer loves her job and has been called a “teaching phenomenon.”

Every year, thousands of young and enthusiastic teachers all over the country start their first day of work. Within the following five years, at least 17 percent of them will leave the profession. Teacher attrition is especially high in poor, urban schools, where on average about a fifth of the entire faculty leaves annually.

Not only is recruitment and retraining expensive, costing the United States about $2 billion each year, but research also shows that teacher stability is crucial for building strong relationships between staff and students.

What’s pushing so many teachers out of the profession? Richard Ingersoll, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has found that teachers cite long hours and low pay as contributing to their dissatisfaction. But teachers are more upset by their lack of say over key decisions affecting classrooms. Volumes of research echo this. In a 2014 Gallup Poll, teachers ranked last among 12 professional groups in agreeing that their opinion at work matters.

Politicians have tried to solve the country’s teacher attrition problem by giving bonuses to teachers in high-poverty schools or tying pay to test scores. But research shows that such approaches have been unsuccessful. Perhaps giving teachers more power could make a difference where other interventions have not.

Consider the case of Mission High, an urban, low-income school in San Francisco. In 2001, it lost 34 percent of its teachers – more than any other school in the district. By the 2013-14 school year, Mission was losing only 7 percent of its teachers.

What happened? The district and school administrators had tried mass staff firings and tougher accountability measures, to no avail. Then, in the early 2000s, it tried supporting teachers instead of cracking down on them.

The school principal increased paid time for teachers to plan intellectually engaging lessons, design assessments to measure a broad range of skills and analyze outcomes to adjust instruction. Teachers made videos of students talking about what kind of teaching helped them succeed. And they researched how integrated classes, personalized teaching and culturally relevant curriculum increased achievement.

A small number of teachers also created an “anti-racist research and action group” to comb through quantitative and qualitative data, investigate the root causes behind achievement gaps and then design action plans to close them.

Teachers weren’t the only beneficiaries; as teacher morale and retention rates went up, student achievement rates did too.

College enrollment went from 55 percent in 2007 to 74 percent by 2013, even though 75 percent of students were poor and 38 percent were non-native English speakers. The graduation rate went from among the lowest in the district, at 60 percent, to 82 percent. In 2013, the graduation rate for African-American students was 20 percent higher at Mission than the district average. And in a recent survey, 90 percent of students said they like the school and would recommend it to others.

Too often, government dollars earmarked for professional development end up going to new administrators or external consultants, not to programs empowering classroom teachers. Most schools still operate under the outdated model of labor division: Educators teach while bureaucrats and consultants design solutions for their classrooms.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, the United States concentrated most of its resources on building up external accountability systems, tests and teacher evaluation forms. But judging from Mission High’s success, we’d be better off building up teachers.

Kristina Rizga writes about schools for Mother Jones.