The Dropout Crisis: Why Are Teachers Leaving? The Job? Management? or the Generation?

As President Obama launches My Brother’s Keeper (…”a new effort aimed at empowering boys and young men of color”), as schools scramble to train school leaders and teachers, as the far more rigorous Common Core standards become the yardstick for measuring achievement, schools face an ignored crisis – the numbers of teachers who leave every year.

A new report from the Alliance for Excellent Education, entitled On the Path to Equity: Improving the Effectiveness of Beginning Teachers is both disturbing and not surprising.

… nearly 15 percent of the workforce [teachers] is moving or leaving every year. And, the study says, at-risk students suffer the most … nearly 20 percent of teachers at high-poverty schools leave every year, a rate 50 percent higher than at more affluent schools.

The reasons for leaving, according to the study, have been the same for decades,

The report points to a variety of reasons for the turnover, including low salaries and a lack of support for many teachers. Which helps to explain why those most likely to quit are also the least experienced: 40 to 50 percent of new teachers leave within their first five years on the job. [In high needs NYC middle schools the rate is 70%]

The more difficult the school, meaning the higher the level of poverty, the more likely teachers leave and the need for interventions become more acute.

Without access to excellent peers, mentors, and opportunities for collaboration and feedback, teachers’ performance in high-poverty schools plateaus after a few years and both morale and work environment suffer. Ultimately, the report notes, these hard-to-staff schools become known as “places to leave, not places in which to stay.” According to the report, high-poverty schools experience a teacher turnover rate of about 20 percent per calendar year—roughly 50 percent higher than the rate in more affluent schools.

The study concludes with a range of rather vanilla recommendations:

Require regular evaluations of teachers using multiple measures.

• Develop systems to encourage high-quality educator development and teaching.

• Require comprehensive induction programs for new teachers.

• Embed analysis and improvement of teaching and learning conditions.

• Support staff selection and professional growth systems that foster collegial collaboration.

The study, as I mentioned, is not surprising, and disappointingly shallow.

For decades teaching positions in “high needs” schools, aka high poverty or to be blunt schools in inner city communities of color, have been difficult to staff. In the mid-nineties 17% of New York City teachers were “Provisional Preparatory Teachers’ (PPTs), teachers who passed the coursework but could not pass the low-skilled required exams and they served in the poorest schools. About the same time I was a member of a School Under Registration Review (SURR) review team assessing a low achieving, high poverty school. On the first day of the 4-day visit the principal was late to the meeting. It was February, he had two teaching vacancies and a number of teachers were absent – his first task was to assign “coverages” to the staff, an additional teaching period. As we began the meeting one of the team members asked a softball question: What criteria do you use to assess effective teaching? The frustrated principal blurted out, “They come every day and blood doesn’t run out from under the door.”

High teacher turnover is nothing new.

Why do teachers leave?

* It’s a far more difficult and frustrating job than it appears from afar, and, anyone can decide to become a teacher – there are few, if any, admissions criteria for teacher education programs – in fact, programs scramble to admit students and collect tuition. In Finland schools of education draw from the top 10% and, in the elementary grade teacher preparation programs; we draw from the lower half.

We have too many teacher preparation programs and the programs should be more selective.

* Induction programs are slipshod. In most schools and school districts there are informal mentoring programs – an experienced teacher is assigned to a new teacher. The mentor is rarely trained. In bygone days the much maligned Board of Education required mentoring – in my school district we required training for the mentors. Experienced, highly effective teachers do not automatically translate into effective mentors of new teachers. As the union rep – the guy who teachers came to, to complain; I heard from the mentor, “They don’t listen, they think they know everything,” and from the new teacher, “My mentor reminds me of my mother, nothing I do is right.”

Mentoring is a skill unto itself.

* Teaching is isolating – all day in a classroom with kids and in most schools few, if any, opportunities to interact with colleagues. For a new teacher in an extremely high stress job with no feedback, no support system, the pressures can be overwhelming and drive out a teacher in spite of their potential. Schools with a collaborative culture, school leaders that schedule common planning time and guide the use of the time provide an emotional as well as instructional support. A new elementary school opened in my district, almost all the teachers were first or second year teachers: as a district union rep how could I support them? I organized an every-other-Friday meeting at a local tavern – with reduced price drinks. Apparently they sipped (or gulped) bright colored alcoholic beverages and talked about lessons and planning!!

Cultures of collaboration are essential.

* The days of career teachers, or, career any job are rapidly changing. Kids move from teaching job to teaching job and from career to career. I was in a “hot” restaurant in LA (at the AFT Convention) and asked a question I frequently ask servers, “What’s your real job?” The server told me he had an engineering degree, with a few friends he ran a “mustard” company and was planning to open a bar. Not uncommon.

In the waning days of June I sought out two younger teachers who were leaving teaching, for one – he heard the music scene in Austin was great and he wanted to check it out, and, for another, their partner was moving to Portland and they’re trail along … the “hipster” generation has shallow roots.

More and more jobs are not site-based, you can log-on from anywhere and go to work – the world of work is amorphous and our values, a lifetime career, might very well be outmoded.

* Teaching will never compete with other high education jobs income-wise and rarely provide ladders for promotion.

I get tired of teachers who begin with “… in Finland …” These days I interrupt and ask if they were in the top 10% of their college class – if they answer “no” I tell them “in Finland” they wouldn’t be a teacher. We live in a nation with unparalleled income inequality and teaching will never be viewed as a high status job. Up until recently the attraction was defined-benefit pension and job stability. That might be changing! A few years ago I met a guy in his fifth year of teaching – his principal raved about him – and – he was leaving and going back to school to get an MBA. He told me he looked ten years down the road – looked at his salary and decided it would not support the life he wanted for his new wife and yet to be born kid(s). The new New York City teacher contract does provide other pathways at higher salaries for excellent teachers – perhaps it will convince the “best and brightest” to remain in the classroom.

* School leadership is crucial to retaining staff.

New teachers frequently start in a “high needs” school and move up the ladder to more affluent schools – a pattern which has accelerated today with the absence of a seniority transfer plan; any teacher can transfer to any school. Recruiting, selecting, training and retaining school leaders is just as important as retaining teachers.

School leader preparation programs need tuition-paying students to survive and also have pitiable admissions criteria. How many programs require evidence of excellent teaching? You sit in classrooms, an internship with the college supervisor coming by a few times and voila!! You are the “owner” of a supervisory certificate.

The Department programs, the Leadership Programs (see list here) do have high admission standards – whether they select the correct candidates and the performance of the graduates is open to question). Too many school leaders revert to the norm, (“Do it because I say to do it.”) Too many cannot lead by example, too many are robotic and await the orders from on high to salute and pass on the order.

Highly effective school leaders retain staff.

School cultures are firmly embedded, teachers and principals may come and go – the culture remains. The culture may be one that fosters collaboration or one that may foster conflict, the culture may foster high expectations and a student-centered school or low expectations and a teacher-centered school. The core issue may always be what can we do for each and every kid or the teacher room discussions can center on getting out of the parking lot as fast as possible. The right school leader can build a school culture that attracts and retains teachers – up to a point; after all, in addition to the music scene in Austin, the bar-b-que is great!!

3 responses to “The Dropout Crisis: Why Are Teachers Leaving? The Job? Management? or the Generation?

  1. Thank you for a thoughtful article, as usual. I know that in my school teachers hunger and thirst for more time to collaborate. The DOE has made that more difficult in recent years by closing teacher dining rooms. The high turnover, even in a desirable school, does not help either. New teachers are no longer absorbed into a school’s culture. Most of us are isolated in separate spaces trying to keep up with the constant technological changes, the CCSS requirements, and Advance. The powers that be give lip service to wanting to improve our practice, but paradoxically they have made it harder to even sit down for a half hour together at lunch. I miss the informal, but illuminating, conversations we used to have, and the sense of camaraderie that grew from them.


  2. Your article really hits the mark. Those young teachers with better skills usually leave high need schools for better pastures. This is exactly what happened to me. When I started 36 years ago in a very dysfunctional school in one of the poorest areas of the city, I decided to do something unheard of at that time, collaborate. I got a group of teachers together to brainstorm and share lessons to teach very disabled high need special education adolescents. I was forced to stop because I was told only a supervisor could authorize such a plan. So I naively asked the principal if he was going to authorize this collaborative approach to instruction. He said no. I naively asked why? His answer was the usual, “Administrative prerogative.” From that day forward, I scanned the school’s bulletin board for other jobs. When I reached my fifth year, I applied for an out-of-classroom job and got it. For the next 19 years, I evaluated special education students. When Bloomberg decided to do away with my job, I ended up in the classroom again, but this time I was in a middle class school in one of the city’s best districts. It was a school that appreciated highly skilled teachers. There I was allowed to use highly effective special educational programs and ended up informally coordinating a special education unit because special educational supervisors no longer existed. . It was a school where the principal believed in collaboration and mentoring. I mentored formally (and I was trained in the late 1990s) many new special education teachers. Obviously, they worked in an environment that was completely supportive to learning and teachers. My school also had great kids and supportive parents. In the 12 years I was in the school, the special education unit grew from 2 SETSS teachers to 6 ICT teachers as well as 3 self contained teachers. All these teachers came in young, fresh and willing to learn from those of us who had a lot of experience. Just about all our special education teachers are still in the school. This is a school with 90% retention. It is an environment where teachers want to stay. And yes, zip code does mean everything!!!!


  3. The key here is effective leadership and an enforced student discipline policy. With 20% of the principals being from the leadership academy and Carmen Farina’s weakening of student discipline consequences, nothing will change.


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