Teaching’s Revolving Door

New teachers leave the profession at an alarming rate — and there's no single reason or easy solutions

By Barbara Miner

Illustrator: Barbara Miner

Ariel White in the classroom.
Photo: Barbara Miner

In 2001, in the middle of the day in the middle of the year, Elaine* walked off her job as a 7th-8th grade science teacher with the Chicago Public Schools. Elaine, who had a master’s degree from Loyola University, had been with the Chicago schools for more than two years and had planned on being a teacher for life. She originally taught at a middle-class white school on the north side where test scores were exemplary and resources were plentiful — so plentiful that she had science textbooks not yet officially on the market.

At the same time, she felt unfulfilled, isolated, and sidetracked from her vision of working in a diverse, urban setting. She asked to be transferred.

Elaine was unprepared for the conditions at her new school, however. The problems were not with the African American, low-income neighborhood — Elaine herself was African American and had grown up on the city’s south side, where the school was located.

But she hadn’t expected that the students and teachers at the school would have so few resources and so little support from district administrators. What’s more, she found she had little hope that district policy makers would rid themselves of the racist assumptions she believes were at the heart of the school’s lack of resources and cavalier attitude toward student learning.

Even today, Elaine can list the problems with precision: her science textbooks were more than 20 years old, sometimes with entire chapters missing, and there weren’t enough for all her classes. Her students had a late lunch period, and by the time they got to the cafeteria, sometimes the food was gone. In the winter, the boiler routinely broke and there would be minimal heat. The teachers rarely collaborated and, worse, fought among themselves. The administration, meanwhile, seemed indifferent to the problems and had a bunker mentality.

“The principal even told me my job was not to teach but to baby-sit, and that my first priority was to keep the students safe,” Elaine recalled in an interview with Rethinking Schools.

Elaine had hoped that after the Christmas holiday break, she would be rejuvenated and would no longer dread going to school each morning. No such luck.

A young single mother of two little girls, Elaine felt she had to protect herself from what she believed was an insane job that left her so drained she couldn’t take care of her own family. That January, in the middle of the day in the middle of the week, she made a decision. She took her students to lunch, went to the principal’s office, told him she was leaving, and walked out of the school.

Elaine remains a teacher, but at a community college, primarily working with students getting their GED. Her two daughters attend the Chicago Public Schools, and she is active with parent advocacy groups. “I am not anti-public schools,” she says emphatically.

Asked to use the hindsight of eight years to help explain why she left, Elaine pauses a moment and then says: “Lack of support for the teachers and the students. Financial support, emotional support — both.”

Ticking Time Bomb

Elaine’s story is personally unique. But multiply her decision thousands of times and you get an idea of one of the most serious problems facing schools — every fall, school districts must hire about 270,000 new K-12 teachers to replace those who have left the profession.

The problem of teacher turnover is especially acute among new teachers, with as many as half of new teachers leaving within five years. In urban districts, the problem is worse. It only takes about three years for half of new teachers to leave.

“Retaining teachers is a far larger problem than recruiting new ones,” notes Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford University who has increasingly played a national role in teacher preparation policy issues. The main dilemma, she adds, “is an exodus of new teachers from the profession.”

Students, especially those in high-poverty schools, bear the brunt of the problem. Too often they are taught by teachers who have not yet developed the experience and skills to be most effective, or who aren’t even teaching in their area of expertise.

Studies have repeatedly found that the single most important variable in student achievement is the quality of the teachers. But how does a school or district develop and hold on to the best teaching staff possible?

There’s no magic wand. Pay is clearly an issue — beginning teachers with a bachelor’s degree earned an average of $31,753 in 2004-05, far below that of comparable college graduates. What’s more, teachers in urban and rural schools tend to get less than their suburban counterparts.

Experts say there are several important steps that are related to, but go beyond, a focus on pay. Here are two of the most essential:

The first step is to recruit the best people possible into the profession, in particular increasing the number of teachers of color. Whether through alternative certification, nontraditional recruitment programs, or increasing beginning pay, a number of initiatives are targeting this step.

The second step, one that is now receiving more attention from policy makers, is what in academic circles is known as improving teacher retention.

One of those inherently boring academic phrases, teacher retention is shorthand for an all-important question: what can be done to ensure that the time, money, and preparation invested in new teachers is not wasted, and that new teachers not only remain in the profession but are given the support necessary to become better teachers? (After all, what’s the point of holding on to a new teacher if you don’t also try to improve their teaching?)

“The ending goal [of a quality teacher] begins at the beginning,” notes Jon Snyder, dean of the graduate school of education at Bank Street College of Education in New York City. “You have to think about the people you are recruiting into the profession. And then you have to train them from the get-go so they know how to teach the children and don’t immediately quit out of a sense of failure.

“Once they are teaching, they need ongoing opportunities to get better, because the support that new teachers need is different than the support you need if you’ve been teaching 10 or 20 years,” Snyder continues. “And in order to have that continuum of teaching development, you have to reorganize and rethink schools.”

Recruitment, teacher preparation, ongoing development, school culture and organization — a tall order. Clearly, teacher retention is a lot more complicated than one might first suspect.

Despite its complexity, the issue of teacher retention needs to be quickly addressed. Two factors are converging to make teacher retention a ticking time bomb of a crisis.

First, more teachers are expected to retire between 2010 to 2020 since any decade since World War II, according to an analysis this September by The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. Overall, schools will need to hire between 2.9 million and 5.1 million teachers between now and 2020.

Unfortunately, the number of teachers leaving the profession is already on the rise. Nationwide, about 270,000 teachers left in 2004?05, compared to 132,300 in 1988-89, according to a January 2007 study by the U.S. Department of Education. Only about a third did so because they retired.

That’s only part of the problem. Those numbers don’t take into account teachers who transfer to what they perceive as a “better” school — a number almost as high as those who leave the K-12 classroom every year. Given this country’s near-apartheid approach to schooling, this means that schools with significant numbers of poor and/or students of color — the very students who could most benefit from quality teachers — disproportionately lose more teachers every year and have a higher percentage of new, inexperienced teachers.

So what’s an urban school district to do?

In the next year, Rethinking Schools will publish a series of articles looking at the teacher retention crisis in urban schools. There is no one magic formula to turn around what is a complicated problem involving everything from money and resources, to school leadership and culture, to teacher preparation and development, to confronting larger social issues such as poverty, racism, and urban neglect that inherently distort our schools’ ability to educate children.

At the same time, there are outlines of potentially beneficial policies. Some center on long-standing issues such as fostering a school culture that promotes learning for all. Some focus on preparing good principals who can be educational leaders. Others require a new paradigm — such as increased job-sharing possibilities, especially given the number of young people entering the profession who may not want to teach full time while also raising a family.

Urban Teacher Residencies

One initiative that has received attention in recent months is what is known as “urban teacher residencies.”

The residencies, for instance, have caught the eye of President-elect Barack Obama, who has made the expansion of teacher residencies and support for new teachers a major component of his education agenda. The Higher Education Act, reauthorized this summer, includes grants to promote teacher residency programs.

“The teacher residency model holds particular promise for addressing the problems of teacher preparation, recruitment, and retention for high-need districts — and may constitute one of the most important reforms of teacher education generally,” Darling-Hammond wrote this June in Phi Delta Kappan.

The residency programs are modeled after the medical practice of intense hospital-based collaboration between recent graduates of medical school and experienced doctors. The teacher residency model, with its year-long focus on urban education and linking of classroom practice with graduate-level coursework, is distinct from the two main paths to teaching: alternative certification programs and traditional teacher education programs.

Existing residency programs are in Boston and Chicago, with a smaller initiative in the Denver area. Several districts, such as Memphis and Philadelphia, are exploring the model. While the programs differ in each city, all subscribe to a core set of principles that, among other things, combine coursework for a master’s with a year of classroom teaching in collaboration with a mentor teacher; focus on developing teachers who want to make a long-term commitment to urban schools; provide a stipend for the resident; and structure ongoing support and development for teachers after they receive their master’s and are hired by the district.

“While these programs are quite new, there is promising evidence that UTRs [Urban Teacher Residencies] are attracting a new pool of talented and diverse recruits, preparing them to be successful in urban classrooms and keeping them in high needs schools and subjects,” according to a report this fall by The Center for Teaching Quality, based in Hillsborough, N.C., and the Aspen Institute, a Washington think tank, in conjunction with the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

The residency initiatives are only five years old. How they will ultimately play out is unclear. And, like many initiatives, they will inherently be shaped by the political, educational, and financial forces at work in any given district.

So far, however, one indicator is heartening. In Chicago, 95 percent of those in the program were still teaching in the district after three years. In Boston, 90 percent were still teaching.

Preparing Teachers for Imperfect Schools

Ariel White, 22, grew up in Chicago. Her mother is a Chicago Public Schools teacher and her father works in social services. Teaching was in her blood.

White attended Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, which is about 75 miles west of Chicago, and got a degree in elementary education. She student taught in De Kalb and everything went well. But something was missing.

“I wanted to work in urban schools,” said White, an African American. “It’s my passion.”

At the same time, White felt unprepared to jump into an urban setting. “In my student teaching, they taught us best practice, and if you were in the best-case scenario this is what teaching should look like and how you should react to problems,” she said. “But I felt we were just learning how to teach in a perfect school with adequate resources. And I knew the urban schools were far from perfect.”

Then White heard about the urban teacher residency program run by the nonprofit group Academy for Urban School Leadership. Under the program, she would do a full year of teaching alongside a specially trained mentor teacher. She would teach four days a week, attend university classes the fifth day, and at the end receive a master’s from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She would be responsible for tuition, but would receive a stipend of $32,000 a year and healthcare benefits. In return, she would promise to teach for four years in an underperforming Chicago public school.

“When I heard about the program, it seemed too good to be true,” White explained in an interview one afternoon while taking a break from teaching. “It offered the three things I needed: more experience, a master’s, and money.”

As part of her residency, White is working with a mentor teacher in a 5th-grade class at the K-8 Chicago Academy. White says she most appreciates the program’s focus on collaboration, both among the residents and between individual residents and mentors. Under the residency, White said she feels part of a collaborative team that structures in time to sit down and discuss, together, what is and isn’t working in the classroom. (Mentor teachers receive supplemental pay for their extra responsibilities.)

“It’s not like, there’s the real teacher, and there’s the resident,” White says. “You are working together. I also feel the mentors set this tone, that it is not just us learning, but that we are trying to learn from each other.”

On a practical level, White says she is learning any number of small details about teaching that she never got in her coursework at DeKalb. “I’m not struggling with the content, but [I am with] classroom management and students focusing rather than getting easily distracted,” she says.

She hesitates to list some of the classroom management techniques that have made a difference, because they seem so small to an outsider. Encouraged, she mentions one.

In her old school, if the class were getting rowdy the teacher would clap to get the class’s attention, and then have the other students clap. “The clapping drove me crazy,” White says with a laugh. “We were clapping all the time and it was so loud.”

In her residency this year, White has learned to modify the approach and instead snap her fingers. She finds it much more effective, and easier on the classroom noise level.

She has also learned to avoid unnecessary power struggles with her students, and to praise them when they do something right and not just criticize them when they misbehave. Most important, White says, she and her mentor have time on a daily basis, usually at the end of the school day, to sit down and discuss the students and how they are doing.

Just as with Elaine, White’s story is personally unique. But her appreciation for the residency program is grounded in what she outlines as an overall approach that values teacher collaboration, respects teachers as professionals, provides time for reflection and discussion, and develops a corps of urban teachers committed to remaining on the job beyond those critical first years.

The teacher residency programs, for instance, also provide support structures, such as professional development and coaches, once residents graduate. In Boston, residents receive ongoing support for an additional year; in Chicago, coaching continues through the first two years of full-time teaching.

The Chicago program currently has 79 residents at six schools, known as training academies, that are part of the Chicago Public Schools. It partners with National-Louis University and the University of Illinois at Chicago. In Boston, there were 84 residents in the program last year, and the program partners with the University of Massachusetts-Boston. In Boston, 55 percent of the residents in 2007-08 were teachers of color; in Chicago the figure was 57 percent.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) represents teachers in both Boston and Chicago. Kathy Buzad, an AFT specialist in educational issues, notes that the programs are still relatively new, so their track record is limited. At the same time, they have many positive aspects. “They have the potential to effectively address the urban teacher shortage, both in terms of a diverse teaching staff and in supporting new teachers with mentoring and ongoing professional development in an authentic learning environment,” she said.

While the programs are linked by their overall orientation, they are independent of each other. In Boston, there is a special focus on teaching middle and high school teachers in math and science. In addition, all the residents earn dual licensing in special education.

The Chicago program initiated by the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), meanwhile, embarked in 2006 on a parallel project. AUSL has taken over the management of low-performing Chicago Public Schools, known as “turn-around schools.”

While the teacher residency program has operated with little public fanfare, the turn-around program has been highly controversial in Chicago, in part because it has been a top-down model of reform that is at odds with grassroots reform efforts such as elected local school councils, a landmark reform giving parents significant input into school decisions. Such factors have raised concerns about AUSL’s strategic game plan not only for the turn-around schools, but the residency program.

Political controversy might not be the most difficult question facing residency programs, however. In the midst of the economic downturn, will districts decide that the model costs too much in the short term, regardless of potential long-term benefits?

Issues of Sustainability

Mentors, coaches, and yearlong residencies obviously cost more money than a traditional student-teacher arrangement. This raises a question that plagues many a good idea: Is the program financially sustainable?

To date, the residencies have received money from a mix of district, federal, and foundation/private funds, with the bulk of money from the districts. In Chicago this year, it cost about $5 million to run the residency program, according to Tim Cawley, head of finances for AUSL. About $3 million of that comes from the district. In Boston, about 60 percent of the funding also comes from the district; about 10 percent from private funds.

Supporters of the teacher residency programs argue that, in the long run, developing an effective, stable group of teachers is cost effective, especially if districts look at how much they spend on new teacher recruitment and preparation and rethink how they spend professional development monies.

Nationwide, teacher turnover costs $7.3 billion a year, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. In some districts, the costs are shockingly high. In Milwaukee, the average cost per teacher who left was $15,325, according to the commission. In Chicago, the average cost was $17,872, with the total cost to the district about $86 million per year.

That’s a lot of money to spend on failure, in this case the failure of teacher retention.

Snyder of Bank Street College argues that to confront the problem, a comprehensive approach is needed — whether better recruitment, better preparation, or better professional development. Not to be forgotten, he continues, is the need for new attitudes and a willingness to work together.

“It takes a village to raise a teacher, but too many are saying how the other group is screwed up, whether the districts or the schools or the colleges,” he says. “OK, we’re all messed up. Now let’s sit down and figure out what to do.”

Barbara Miner is a journalist based in Milwaukee. She is the former managing editor of Rethinking Schools. This is the first in a series of articles sponsored by the Ford Foundation on ideas for retaining teachers.

* Elaine is a pseudonym.