Philadelphia is losing school teachers, and it’s having a negative effect on students.
A report from The Philadelphia Inquirer in April examined teacher turnover in 26 of the city’s public schools. The report pointed out that at least one-quarter of the teachers in these schools have been leaving annually for the last four years, and more than that over the last two years.
The low-income schools have particularly high turnover. What these schools are witnessing confirms an earlier study by the Learning Policy Institute, which noted that teachers in Title I schools—schools that receive supplemental government funds and have large numbers of low-income students—leave at rates almost 50% greater than non-Title I schools.
Another report by the same group found that “between 19 and 30% of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years, with turnover much higher in low-income schools.”
The problem of teacher turnover extends well beyond Philadelphia. According to two recent reports by the Economic Policy Institute, 13.8% of the teachers nationwide were lost after the 2011-2012 school year due to turnover and attrition, costing an estimated $7.3 billion in losses every year, which are now projected to exceed $8 billion.
As teacher turnover speeds up, school districts are investing more money to find and keep good teachers. While teacher attrition remains high at 8% annually, student enrollments are projected to grow by 3 million in the next decade—in large part due to higher birth rates and immigration. Meanwhile, student-teacher ratios are set to shrink and will require an additional 145,000 teachers by 2025.
Although these numbers give us reason to worry and to find quick and efficient solutions, the underlying reasons for this teacher turnover should also give us pause.
The editorial board of The Philadelphia Inquirer rightly called teacher turnover an education crisis that is harming students, yet its featured articles also reveal that the problem is not primarily one of compensation and salary—contrary to the recent teacher protests calling for higher pay.
Some teachers say their decision to leave had to do with faulty leadership in schools. They cite excessive micromanaging, lack of administrative support, and unrealistic expectations on student performance, among other complaints.
The solutions to this problem, then, cannot be solved by simply throwing more money at it.
Teachers report that their greatest reason for leaving schools is “dissatisfaction” with the job. An issue brief by Penn State University and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation noted that, among professional occupations, teachers rate lowest in feeling that their opinions count at work.
A big contributor to this diminished feeling of satisfaction is the current administrative structure that limits the leadership roles teachers can assume within their schools.
The current structure of many public school districts leaves a gap between teachers and the administrations they serve.
State education departments and district public school systems create curricula and set exam performance standards with little to no consultation with teachers, despite their having the greatest and most protracted exposure to students.
State boards of education are responsible for creating policies on curriculum and assessment, and district boards uphold the same policies by making sure that school principals enforce such standards. The teacher’s suggestion is seldom encouraged or considered. Only nine states designate a place for teachers on their boards of education.
State curricula, moreover, are often focused on test preparation and outcomes, which puts teachers in a difficult place between their students, who might be struggling to meet these standards, and their administrators, whose jobs are to ensure good test outcomes.
A survey of classroom teachers by the National Education Association found that 72% of teachers felt “moderate” or “extreme” pressure to increase test scores from their schools and district administrators.
Many teachers complain that their administration puts pressure on them to achieve difficult, even unreasonable, test results, forcing them to teach to tests instead of focusing on individual student development.
Such a myopic focus on test preparation and scores makes it harder for newer teachers to discover their own teaching strengths.
For this reason, teachers should be afforded a certain level of creative liberty and classroom autonomy, allowing them to find and seek ways to collaborate with other teachers in the same subjects, while also improving as instructors.
One way of doing this is to implement a form of peer assistance and review that may give accomplished teachers incentive pay and increased responsibilities to serve as mentors for beginning or struggling teachers.
Teachers continue to be motivated by the hope of making a difference in their students’ lives and helping them grow, no matter how difficult a particular district may be.
Schools should make it a priority to involve teachers in school development and implementation, and welcome their suggestions to planning school curricula. The trick to a good classroom experience, after all, is the teacher.