Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Teacher Attrition

After teachers at Opportunity Charter School wanted to unionize, they were berated by their school's leader.  Now, the union organizers are out of a job.  Thirteen pro-union teachers, including five who were part of a group that organized the union vote, were let go.  As charter school employees, their employment is at will and based on annual contracts.  Attrition at the school - both students and teachers - has been rising.

There are a number of directions to take in a discussion on this article, but I want to talk about teacher attrition.  (I don't mean to ignore the situation at Opportunity Charter.  There are likely legal questions to be raised, and as I'm not a lawyer, I'll refrain from adding my footsteps to what will be well-walked ground.)  Teacher attrition figures are included in city reports on individual schools, and colleagues of mine report that their schools actively try to recruit teachers who seem inclined to stay beyond a few years.  That's logical - it costs money to recruit new employees, and it takes time for new teachers to get up to speed in an unfamiliar system.  Experienced, effective teachers make meaningful contributions from Day 1 of the school year (and over the summer, as they tie the ending year into the beginning one).  I recall from my own experience beginning at my school that the first few weeks overload the senses and that it takes time to ramp up and become a contributor in an existing framework.

Naturally, high attrition rates suggest that something is amiss.  If a school is functioning well, fewer teachers will want to leave (though some may be let go for performance reasons).  If it isn't, the teachers who can get out will get out.  And teachers aren't generally leaving for financial reasons; a 2005 report indicates that teachers are leaving because they lack planning time, have too heavy a workload, and are frustrated with student behavior.  Some unsurprising findings regarding attrition and transfers:

1.  Attrition is 50% higher in poor schools than wealthy ones.
2.  "The best and brightest teachers are often the first to leave."
3.  Beginning teachers leave more frequently than experienced ones (perhaps because they are assigned lower performing students).
4.  New teachers who are mentored by an experienced teacher have more effective classrooms and lower attrition rates.
5.  Experienced teachers who mentor new teachers actually improve their own classrooms due to the nature of their work as mentors.
6.  Teacher attrition costs over $2 billion annually.

If I'm designing a school where I want to keep my best teachers from leaving, I take a few lessons from this.  I pair younger teachers with either full-time mentors (who have experience and successful classrooms) or master teachers.  I provide ample feedback that is focused on identifying areas for growth and the means to improve, and encourage new teachers to observe other teachers in action to see examples.  I provide more than sufficient planning time for teachers and streamline their schedules so that they teach 1-2 courses throughout the day instead of 3-5 different topics.  I make sure that I recruit people with the drive to push their students and the willingness to take feedback, and I may tend to favor hires with classroom experience.

I also want to apply this to Teach For America.  As an alumnus of Teach For America, I'm invested in the organization and want to help it continue to do good things for students and improve its practices.  Teach For America generally recruits staff members after their corps experience, and I think they would be well advised to try to recruit more candidates with 3-7 years of experience.  I know the have a pipeline of talent with two years of experience who are able and willing to join staff, but the study I linked to above has quantified what I have believed about the importance of mentors.  With experienced mentors, corps members would be better able to lead their classrooms and will be more likely to stay in the profession.  During my first year teacher, I had a great mentor teacher and a fantastic science teacher who taught just a few doors down from me.  I used them so much and I know that the insight they had due to their experience had a big impact on my year and my students' year.  We need more great teachers like them working with new teachers.

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