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Is School Reform Really Driving Teachers Out of the Profession?

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The idea that school reform, especially test-based accountability is driving teachers out of the profession has been widely reported in the media, especially in a recent NPR article. This assertion, unfortunately, relies mostly on anecdotes. When we actually look at the data, there is evidence of problems in the teacher pipeline to be sure, but not an overall teacher shortage. In New Orleans and other reform-driven cities, the answers (and even the questions) are a bit different.

The possibility of a teacher shortage is a recurring part of the debate about U.S. education. For many decades, the focus has been on what seemed like high teacher turnover. Ten years ago, I worked on a study to test this and found that teachers left the profession at about the same rate as similar professions like social workers and nurses, and teachers actually had lower turnover rates than the average college graduate. That is, it appears that turnover is high among new teachers mainly because they are young and young workers do not yet know what they want to do with their lives. This is just how the labor market works.

Given the massive changes in state and federal policy starting with No Child Left Behind, it seemed plausible that reform had created a new turnover/shortage problem. Teachers generally don't like high-stakes testing, and they especially dislike being held accountable based on value-added measures that have become more common in recent years. Add to that the regular threats to teacher tenure, the reduction in bargaining rights in Wisconsin and other states, and you have a plausible case that recent policies have driven teachers out of the profession.

Nevertheless, in reading a recent brief on the topic by CALDER, I am convinced again that the conventional wisdom of a teacher shortage is still a myth. The CALDER brief makes the case simply and powerfully: 

  • The number of teachers graduating from institutions of higher education with teaching credentials hit a 25-year high in 2011 (almost ten years after No Child Left Behind) and has dropped only very slightly since then.
  • Less than half of these teachers are hired into teaching positions, which is more consistent with a surplus than a shortage. 
  • The percentage of schools reporting difficulties finding candidates in various fields (STEM, special education, elementary) is about the same now as it was in 1990 and seems to be on the decline.

These data are not perfect. They focus on new entrants to the profession rather than turnover; some of the non-hires are probably college students choosing not to apply for teaching positions upon graduation; and some teacher graduates are getting master's degrees. Still, none of these problems could plausibly reverse the pattern or change the conclusion.

So, no shortage, no problem? Unfortunately, not. The data also reinforce that there are actual shortages in some areas. STEM, special education, rural and urban areas, and schools serving high percentages of disadvantaged students are prime examples. It is also a real problem that a large share of teachers opposes the current reforms. As I've said many times before, accountability systems don't work if they don't have the support of those being held accountable. However, reform and shortages are evidently less connected than what media reports suggest. The data indicate that people still want to be teachers even though they don't like some elements of reform--and others no doubt prefer the reformed system to the old one.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that we need to ratchet up the quality of teachers and teaching. We need to make the profession more attractive by improving working conditions. To increase the stature of teaching, we need to clearly convey how challenging it is, intellectually and otherwise--every bit as complicated as the work of the lawyers and doctors that education leaders compare themselves to. If schools want to better the learning environment, they need more resources and, as Tony Bryk and colleagues have emphasized, more capacity for improvement. Smaller classes, high school counselors, and mental health services for students would help, as would higher salaries. 

From the heated criticism of reform, you would think that evaluation and accountability necessarily degrade working conditions and learning environments, but this is not so. Workplaces where standards are high and employees are accountable for their performances attract and retain the types of people who can excel and create rich learning environments. We're just not there yet. While it's good that most states finally have a teacher accountability system, we have a ways to go before these systems will deserve educators' trust. We also still have a lot of work to do on teacher preparation.

What about New Orleans? Are the city's school reforms--more intense than anywhere else--driving teachers out? Actually, yes, though this isn't really the right question. New Orleans' schools can dismiss low-performers at will, which charter leaders see as essential to their success. Dismissing and counseling out lower-performing teachers is no doubt a partial cause of the city's very high turnover. This highlights another reason why the turnover and shortage conversations are misleading. If low-performing teachers are replaced by higher-performing ones, then the quality of teaching and student outcomes will improve. The overall turnover rates don't distinguish the good turnover from the bad.

New Orleans' reform leaders seem to recognize that the overall rate of turnover is now so high that it is a real barrier to continued improvement. While Teach for America teachers seem to be relatively effective in raising student achievement, the program is not designed to keep them in the profession. Others leave because the work and learning environments in the city's charter schools are not conducive to what many see as a quality education or a fulfilling personal life. People choose to work in traditional public school systems in part because of the work-life balance it affords--parents' schedules better align with their children's and family leave policies provide long-term job security. While work hours in New Orleans' schools have become a bit more manageable in recent years, they are still longer than traditional public schools. I cannot count the number of times teachers and leaders have told me that they are leaving for other teaching positions just so they can have a life. So much for work-life balance.

So, is school reform driving teachers out of the profession nationally? Apparently not. Is it in New Orleans where the reforms are much more intense? To some degree, yes, but half of this is almost by design--many teachers hired here do not intend to stay and performance-based personnel decisions mean many are dismissed or pushed out. I suspect similar patterns are arising in other reform cities. Almost everyone would like to see turnover drop, but trade-offs arise at every turn: To retain teachers, schools will probably have to increase pay and reduce work hours, both of which come with obvious trade-offs. 

We are asking the wrong question and getting the wrong answer. There are more than enough people willing to be teachers in traditional public schools, but are they prepared to meet the increasing demands we have for them and their students? Can we adapt the current reforms in ways that teachers generally support and that genuinely improve teaching? Can we shift enough teachers from subjects and locations where we have more than enough teachers to those where we have actual shortages?

Calling the current situation a "shortage problem" or a "reform problem" does not do it justice. By getting the problem wrong, the solution will probably be misguided as well. 

Douglas N. Harris is Professor of Economics, the Schleider Foundation Chair in Public Education, and founding Director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (ERA-New Orleans)

You can follow him on Twitter.

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