Why Keeping Teachers in Schools for the Long-term is so Important

No matter what, education is centrally about improving student outcomes. We do a lot to try and maximize that, but many of our policies end up having unintended negative consequences. In particular, many of our school improvement policies can make teacher lives so miserable that it can often be difficult to retain teachers.

In Nashville alone, most under performing schools are lucky to keep teachers for an entire school year. Frequently, teachers will leave in the middle of the semester which results in students being taught by long-term substitute teachers who don’t actually teach. This all leads to a sense of constant discontinuity within schools. Students never see the same faces every year, and so it can be hard to build the type of culture that can foster safety and success in the school.

Consider the perspective of a student who makes it through 13 years of this revolving door. Many of these students are extremely lucky to have the same teachers for the entire school year. They will almost certainly be left with ineffective substitute teachers for long periods of their education. The school will feel and look new every year. Administrations and teachers will constantly change, and so the rules and expectations of the school will always feel unsafe and unreliable.

So here’s what I propose → before we start obsessing over test scores and academic metrics we must first focus on building stable and safe school cultures. I believe that teacher retention is central to building that consistency, and, with that, urban policymakers ought to start optimizing policies based on how they affect year-to-year teacher retention.

The Side Effects of our Current Policies

A common hope for improving student outcomes is to improve teacher quality through rigorous systems of evaluation and professional development. Many urban educators are constantly observed, evaluated, and then pushed to improve their teaching through many hours of professional development each week.

It’s reasonable why we think this would be effective. On paper, it seems like constantly testing teachers would help teachers improve their craft. After all, that’s basically the only tool we use for improving student knowledge. However, when we rely so heavily on a measure, it can be difficult to to question whether the measure actually accomplishes what we intended. Is it even measuring teacher effectiveness? What is teacher effectiveness anyway?

In a recent RAND study on improving teacher effectiveness, they found no gains in student performance from implementing rigorous systems of teacher feedback, professional development, and mentorship.

“The Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching initiative, designed and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was a multiyear effort to dramatically improve student outcomes by increasing students’ access to effective teaching. Participating sites adopted measures of teaching effectiveness (TE) that included both a teacher’s contribution to growth in student achievement and his or her teaching practices assessed with a structured observation rubric. The TE measures were to be used to improve staffing actions, identify teaching weaknesses and overcome them through effectiveness-linked professional development (PD), and employ compensation and career ladders (CLs) as incentives to retain the most-effective teachers and have them support the growth of other teachers. The developers believed that these mechanisms would lead to more-effective teaching, greater access to effective teaching for low-income minority (LIM) students, and greatly improved academic outcomes.

Beginning in 2009–2010, three school districts — Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS) in Florida; Memphis City Schools (MCS) in Tennessee (which merged with Shelby County Schools, or SCS, during the initiative); and Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) in Pennsylvania — and four charter management organizations (CMOs) — Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, Aspire Public Schools, Green Dot Public Schools, and Partnerships to Uplift Communities (PUC) Schools — participated in the Intensive Partnerships initiative. RAND and the American Institutes for Research conducted a six-year evaluation of the initiative, documenting the policies and practices each site enacted and their effects on student outcomes. This is the final evaluation report.”

Here are their main findings:

“The sites succeeded in implementing measures of effectiveness to evaluate teachers and made use of the measures in a range of human-resource (HR) decisions.

Every site adopted an observation rubric that established a common understanding of effective teaching. Sites devoted considerable time and effort to train and certify classroom observers and to observe teachers on a regular basis.

Every site implemented a composite measure of TE that included scores from direct classroom observations of teaching and a measure of growth in student achievement.

Every site used the composite measure to varying degrees to make decisions about HR matters, including recruitment, hiring, and placement; tenure and dismissal; PD; and compensation and CLs.

Overall, however, the initiative did not achieve its goals for student achievement or graduation, particularly for LIM students.

With minor exceptions, by 2014–2015, student achievement, access to effective teaching, and dropout rates were not dramatically better than they were for similar sites that did not participate in the Intensive Partnerships initiative.

There are several possible reasons that the initiative failed to produce the desired dramatic improvement in outcomes across all years: incomplete implementation of the key policies and practices; the influence of external factors, such as state-level policy changes during the Intensive Partnerships initiative; insufficient time for effects to appear; a flawed theory of action; or a combination of these factors.”

In other words, even when we decide that test scores mean something, it is incredibly difficult to even show that school administrators can have a significant effect on teacher effectiveness.

There are two things that are abundantly clear: 1. Urban education has a retention problem; and 2. rigorous systems of teacher evaluation are very stressful. They undoubtedly affect year-to-year retention. I know teachers who have left schools because of this problem. I also know many veteran teachers who make their employment decisions based primarily on whether the school implements these systems.

In addition to ineffective and stressful professional development requirements, teachers are also strained under the heavy and unnecessary burden of teaching licensures.

Despite the fact that there is no evidence that having a doctorate or masters makes you a better teacher, many states require a masters along with extra licenses. These licenses are nonsensical box-ticking. The process is an expensive waste of time that doesn’t make you a better teacher.

My own license will end up costing around $8500 (not counting the many precious hours wasted in checking the boxes) for a job that only pays $43k which is already $20k under the median salary for the city. For a new graduate with student loan debt it can quickly become very difficult to make ends meet.

Unless you really love it, it doesn’t make sense to enter education and, if you have transferable skills, it doesn’t make sense to stay in education.

Districts with teacher retention issues should consider relaxing professional development and licensure. This will have no negative impact on student achievement, and it will undoubtedly make it easier to become and remain a teacher.

The savings from districts not having to fund professional development can go back into programs that actually improve school culture and safety like funding more social workers and counselors.

These two changes won’t fix teacher retention, but they are a step in the right direction. More generally, policymakers need to better consider the negative impacts that programs can have on urban teacher retention.

School culture must be the foundation that we build our school systems on. If we don’t work to ensure that students can expect consistency from their schools, then there is no chance we are going to be able to help our students meet loftier academic goals.

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