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John Thompson: Are Turnarounds and Tea Party Turmoil Driving Teachers Out?

Guest post by John Thompson.

Which sets of school reforms are inflicting the most damage on teachers and students? Has the right wing Tea Party's most extreme assaults on public education hurt schools the most? Or, has the Duncan administration's ill-conceived corporate reforms done the most harm?

North Carolina was once touted as an exemplar of standards based reforms, and Wake County was praised for its socio-economic integration. Tea Party Governor Pat McCrory and Republicans are phasing out tenure and gutting salaries. As a result, mid-year teacher resignations in Wake schools have increased by an "alarming" 41% this school year. The number of resigning teachers who said they are moving to other North Carolina schools dropped, as there was an increase in teachers leaving for other states.  Early retirements have tripled.

The problem is so extreme that Doug Thilman, Wake's assistant superintendent for human resources, said at a press conference, "Good teachers are having to make hard decisions to leave our classrooms for a better future somewhere else or in another line of work, in another profession - not in our public schools and not in our state." said

The mirror image of Wakes' crisis is found in Chicago "turnaround schools." Chicago's Catalyst quotes Michael Hansen, senior researcher for the American Institutes for Research, who explains that the Duncan administration's School Improvement Grant (SIG) are "under-researched." High attrition following a turnaround has the potential to produce "more harm than help." (emphasis by the Catalyst)

Ignoring educational research, these expensive turnaround campaigns begin with the mass dismissal of teachers. This immediately reduces the number of African-American teachers serving African-American communities, as well as reducing the experience levels of teachers. Catalyst reports, however, that "large chunks of the new staff--teachers who were hand-picked and spent weeks over the summer getting to know each other, becoming a team and learning how to spark improvement when the school reopened--leave within a few years."

Catalyst reports "At 16 of the 17 schools that underwent a turnaround between 2007 and 2011, more than half of teachers hired in the first year of the turnaround left by the third year." Moreover, "Among all turnarounds, an average of two-thirds of new teachers left by year three." (emphasis in the original)

As the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) explains, such high levels of attrition is problematic because, "It can produce a range of organizational problems at schools, such as discontinuity in professional development, shortages in key subjects and loss of teacher leadership."

There is a large body of research on the damage done by teacher churn, as well as the effectiveness of less drastic, more positive alternatives. Catalyst also quotes a teacher who explains why turnover problems are worse where children often face insecurity due to adults coming and going from their lives. "They experience so much loss that it is important for us to develop relationships with them."

The CCSR and other world class researchers have long documented the importance building and maintaining trusting relationships, especially in schools serving neighborhoods with extreme poverty and a lack of social capital. The damage done by teacher "churn" is undeniable. But, rightwingers and corporate reformers have convinced themselves that churn, uncertainty, and the loss of teachers is good.

What do you think? Why do Tea Partiers and reformers think that there is an infinite supply of teachers and that we can be misused and abused at will? Can we estimate the harm done to schools by the extreme right as opposed to those imposed by the President who teachers helped elect and reelect? Will President Obama pay more attention to the damage his policies are doing than conservative Republicans will?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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