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Teacher Turnover Is Predictable

If there's one constant in the debate over how to improve failing schools, it's the demand to get rid of bad teachers and replace them with good ones. After all, the argument goes, it's their job to teach students, and if they can't produce evidence to support their effectiveness, then it's time to sack them.

I admit that the argument is alluring. But like so many controversies, there's another side to the story. It has to do with the reality of the classroom. Specifically, it's about the unprecedented challenge facing teachers today. I'm talking about the pressure to boost standardized test scores - the primary gauge of measuring success - for the ever increasing number of students who come from chaotic backgrounds.

The combination of the two factors has resulted in burnout across the board. It's particularly - but not exclusively - evident in large urban school districts. The District of Columbia is a prime example. It has the dubious distinction of having one of the highest teacher turnover rates in the country. Within the first two years of their career, 55 percent of teachers quit. This compares with a dropout rate of 55 percent within five years nationally ("Is teacher churn undermining real education reform in D.C.?" The Washington Post, Jun. 15).

I've written before about compassion fatigue ("Unappreciated Factor in Teacher Turnover," Jan. 6) . It's a phenomenon that is slowly affecting teachers who are trying their best to overcome the deficits so many disadvantaged students bring to class through no fault of their own. If burnout caused only the worst teachers to quit, then it would be a blessing in disguise. But this is not the case. It's seen most dramatically in the best teachers. So when they bail out, their schools lose an invaluable asset.

Reformers will be quick to assert that if teachers aren't up to the challenge, they shouldn't be in the classroom. In other words, let's not worry about losing these teachers. It's the students who deserve our concern. Yet they are precisely the ones who are hurt when teacher turnover is high. A new study titled "How Teacher Turnover Hurts Student Achievement" found that the morale and the culture of the school is negatively affected by teacher churn. In part, that's because those teachers who remain suffer from survivor guilt. It rubs off on how they relate to their students.

No amount of money or pleading will prevent exemplary teachers from leaving ("Teacher turnover and the stress of reform," Los Angeles Times, Jul. 31, 2011). Their physical and mental health has to come first. Reformers can talk all they want about ways to address the alarming rate of departure of teachers. But unless they've taught in a public school, they can't begin to understand what's going on.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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