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Teachers Are Not Superhuman

By this time in the school year, most teachers are showing the first signs of fatigue, which will invariably progress to exhaustion by June.  This observation is crucial in understanding why the academic achievement gap can never be closed despite what reformers assert.  I have specific reference now to the heavily publicized miracles of the Knowledge is Power Program and the Harlem Children's Zone ("A Re-Analysis of the Effects of KIPP and the Harlem Promise Academies," Teachers College Record, Apr. 28).

The argument made for KIPP and HCZ is that they serve as models which can be scaled up to produce the same positive outcomes.  But a closer look reveals that this is unrealistic.  I'll confine my reasons strictly to what I consider to be the weakest in-school link: there are simply not enough teachers who are willing to work the long hours necessary to duplicate the results that KIPP and HCZ claim.

I've written before about compassion fatigue, which often leads to burnout.  According to the Maslach Burnout Inventory, there are 22 elements (e.g. emotional exhaustion, cynicism). These elements tend to be cumulative, resulting in attrition costs of between $1 and $2.2 billion each year ("The Problem Isn't Teacher Recruiting; It's Retention," The Journal, Jul. 17). It's also seen in the roughly one in six "chronically absent" teachers  during the 2012-13 school year ("Study: About 1 in 6 Teachers Out 18 Days or More," The Wall Street Journal, Jun. 3).

If this data are derived from traditional public schools, why wouldn't KIPP and HCZ also be affected?  The fact is that they are, but they downplay the roughly 49 percent each year who quit. Where are the teachers who are willing to give up their own family to teach year after year in these schools going to come from?  I submit that no package of incentives is attractive enough to induce teachers to fill the classrooms of teachers who have left.  Yes, there may be a few who are willing to try for a year or so.  But these missionaries are outliers.

We can persist in the fiction that what works in the business world in recruiting and retaining top talent will work in public education.  But it will not because teaching is hard work.  And it's getting harder, as pressure mounts on teachers to produce increasingly higher test scores.  It's a prescription for a meltdown.  

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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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