Why she quit teaching

Sarah Fine explains why she quit teaching after four years at a Washington, D.C. charter school. It starts with burnout.

I describe what it was like to teach students such as Shawna, a 10th-grader who could barely read and had resolved that the best way to deal with me was to curse me out under her breath. I describe spending weeks revising a curriculum proposal with my fellow teachers, only to find out that the administration had made a unilateral decision without looking at it. I describe how it became impossible to imagine keeping it up and still having energy for, say, a family.

The workload and workday got longer, while “more and more major decisions were made behind closed doors, and more and more teachers felt micromanaged rather than supported.”

The teaching itself was exhilarating but disheartening. There were triumphs: energetic seminar discussions, cross-class projects, a student-led poetry slam. This past year, my 10th-graders even knocked the DC-CAS reading test out of the water. Even so, I felt like a failure. Too many of my students showed only occasional signs of intellectual curiosity, despite my best efforts to engage them. Too many of them still would not or could not read. And far too many of them fell through the cracks. Of the 130 freshmen who entered the school in 2005, about 50 graduated this spring.

Furthermore, teachers get little respect, Fine writes. Teaching is seen as a nice profession for people without ambition.

She plans to travel, write and relax. I wonder what she’ll end up doing as her next career.

On Eduwonk, Maria Fenwick, also with four years’ experience, explains why she’s voting with her feet, leaving a troubled inner-city school.

The best way I can describe what happened over the course of four years is a gradual wearing down of my spirit. . . . I. Just. Couldn’t. Do. It. Any. More.  It was not a question of effort.  It was certainly not a question of efficacy.  It was, however, a perfect storm: change-resistant colleagues, a principal unable or unwilling to motivate and lead them.

. . . The most shocking thing to admit – even to myself- was that my own intrinsic motivation was not enough.  I did not have the energy, the passion, or the self-discipline to truly carry out the work of an excellent teacher each and every day.

Fenwick is not leaving teaching. She’s switching to a city school where she hopes to find supportive colleagues and a principal who knows how to lead.

About Joanne


  1. I can’t wait to leave teaching for very similar reasons. So far I have lasted 6 years. I started working as an editor and a bookkeeper part time to supplement my meager master’s-degree salary and plan to go back to get a degree in accounting. I am constantly surprised how appreciative people are of the work that I do outside teaching. No matter how much extra work I put into the classroom, it is never enough and I am not compensated for it in any manner (inner happiness, monetarily, or verbal appreciation). Now that my husband has finished his PhD, I can make plans to leave the classroom after this year. Most of my colleagues express the desire to do similarly.

  2. I almost quit teaching a few years ago for some of the reasons Fine describes. I have refocused and worked hard at regaining my inspiration; in fact, I’ve been writing a series of posts on School Gate called “How I Saved My Teaching Career”:


    As a college teacher, I have many advantages that Fine does not, and if it weren’t for that, I think I would have had to leave the profession. It’s a very hard job.

  3. This is a nice series of articles, Siobhan.

  4. Thanks, Lightly! Writing them has helped me understand the process of committing to a career a bit better…

  5. Margo/Mom says:

    “I am constantly surprised how appreciative people are of the work that I do outside teaching. No matter how much extra work I put into the classroom, it is never enough and I am not compensated for it in any manner (inner happiness, monetarily, or verbal appreciation).”

    Lynn’s statement here resonated with me, because it is often how I have felt as a parent, in relation to my childrens’ schools. I am an active, and sought after, contributer to many other areas in which I am involved, both professionally and personally. But somehow the same willingness to take charge, confront problems and work on solutions that makes me a valued participant in other areas only identifies me as some kind of pain in unmentionable places when it comes to schools.

    I wonder about this. I frequently chalk it up to dysfunction and denial. Wanting to solve problems presupposes a willingness to see problems. Far from schools wanting the active participation of parents, I would say that we are more frequently viewed with suspicion: upstarts, either uncaring or hyper-involved.

    So often teachers lay blame on administrators–feeling micromanaged, underappreciated and misunderstood. Yet, education, as much as, if not more than, any other field, promotes from within. The path to administration starts in the classroom. Maybe we need to start looking at teachers own involvement in the problem of feeling underappreciated and misunderstood. Are schools places that recognize, support and honor learning and effort? If not, how on earth are we expecting studfents to learn there?

  6. Margo/mom makes a valid point, and I think it is a symptom of the kinds of dynamics that have been institutionalized in American education… by the fault of no one and of everyone.

    Consider the primary parties invovled with education: students, teachers, parents, administrators. Now quick, which of these are well known for working consistently and well together? Our society has established the norm that students shall resist teachers, teachers shall distrust administrators, administrators shall cringe at parents who advocate… Pick any pairing from those four and you are more likely to think of confrontational, unproductive dynamics as opposed to collaborative and constructive ones. Obviously that is not the way it should be.

    I am talking in generalities, of course, but generalities function as the default mode of operation in a system so far reaching and with so many millions of stakeholders as education. Teachers often assume they will be undermined or undersupported by administrators. Parents often assume that teachers will not listen and just want to do their own thing. Students assume we’re all out to make their lives miserable. There is not a true sense of cooperation and mutual interest in the industry of public education.

    I do think teachers are unfairly criticized when they choose to leave the profession in order to better support their families or seek something else more satisfying. If I had a degree in business and worked managing a restaurant (long hours, physically strenuous) and announced I was changing to a profession different and better for my family I certainly would not be chastized the way many people are for choosing to leave teaching (“you’re just greedy for wanting more pay and a complainer for whining about the workload!”)

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    The DC system needs more money, more administrators and, most of all, more programs.
    And more money.
    Yeah. That’s the ticket.

  8. Lots of jobs suck – especially first professional jobs. And for a lot of the same reasons and also for personal reasons.

  9. Somewhere corporate hacks and think tank “experts” are rubbing their hands together in glee that another veteran teacher has chosen to leave.

  10. Teachers shouldn’t need to be superhuman to be teachers; dedicated, hardworking and expert in the content they teach – yes, like doctors, nurses, lawyers or law enforcement.

    When a student reaches 10th grade and is functionally illiterate, as Sarah tells, then something is so far gone that there is little a 10th grade English teacher can do the remediate the situation. It’s like bringing a patient with a shotgun blast to the head to a doctor and demanding he save their life. Perhaps a miracle will happen and the person will be saved, but it’s certainly can’t be expected.

    All those well intentioned but messianic teachers just enable a truely sick situation.

  11. Margo/Mom says:

    stacy–your shotgun analogy doesn’t quite fit. It would be more like the patient applied first for treatment of athletes foot, which through improper treatment advanced and developed open sores. These open sores were then mistreated which resulted in infection. Untreated infection resulted in eventual amputation. Now the OT in the same treatment facility in which all of this happened complains that it’s too much to expect this patient to ever walk again.

  12. Margo,

    When does the student take some of the blame? By 10th grade they’ve had 10 years of schooling.

  13. You’re right, Margo/Mom. It would be nice if the OT was brave enough to point her finger at the individuals responsible for delivering her patient to her in such an untreatable condition and scream bloody murder. But, instead the OT believes because of her superior dedication, talent, and force of will SHE’LL be able to make that patient walk.

    I’m assuming that a teacher that talked honestly about teaching conditions would be very unpopular with administrators, parents, other teachers and even the students. Now that would be a really messianic mission.

  14. tim-10-ber says:

    Mike in Texas — without the teachers doing their job many student cannots do their part to learn. I would imagine in this case the parents were not involved…that puts the burden on the teacher to motivate the child to learn…

    I know for a fact teachers and principals struggle, no hate, to hold students back even when it is the right thing to do. Even when the parent is requesting the child be help back. More teachers need to be as strong as my son’s kindergarten teacher who agreed with me he should be held back for social development reasons. It was clearly the right thing to do — for both of my sons. Thank GOD we were able to hold both of my sons back!! They are thriving today!!!

    The teachers involved with this students failed her in so many ways…

    I put this solely on the teachers…

    How many students have you passed that needed to be held back? When you do take personal accountability for the student’s success? It is not always the student’s fault. It is not always the parents’ fault and it is not always the teachers’s fault.

    However, in this case…the teachers and administrators in the school(s) this child attended should have known better!! They failed her (and I imagine countless others like her miserably)! Yes, I believe all children can learn with the right teacher…

  15. tim-10-ber,

    The decision to retain a child is seldom left up to teachers anymore. This past school year I wanted to hold 2 students back, they were not. It is not something we take lightly, as too many studies show children who are retained typically do not do well:

    A recent systematic review of seventeen studies examining factors associated with dropping out of high school prior to graduation suggests that grade retention is one of the most powerful predictors of school dropout (Jimerson, Anderson, & Whipple, 2002). Each of the seventeen studies found that grade retention was associated with subsequent school withdrawal. Several of these studies include statistical analyses controlling for many individual and family level variables commonly associated with dropping out (e.g., socio-emotional adjustment, SES, ethnicity, achievement, gender, parental level of education, and parental involvement). This research review revealed the consistent finding that students retained during elementary school are at an elevated risk for dropping out of high school (Jimerson et al., 2002). Research indicates that retained students are between 2 and 11 times more likely to drop out during high school than non-retained students (Alexander et al., 1999; Bachman, Green, & Wirtanen, 1971; Cairns, Cairns, & Neckerman, 1989; Ensminger & Slusarick, 1992; Fine, 1989, 1991; Grissom & Shepard, 1989; Lloyd, 1978; McDill, Natriello, & Pallas, 1986; Nason, 1991;
    Pallas, 1986; Roderick, 1994, 1995; Rumberger, 1987, 1995; Shepard & Smith, 1989, 1990; Stroup & Robins, 1972; Tuck, 1989). In fact, grade retention has been identified as the single most powerful
    predictor of dropping out (Rumberger, 1995).

    In the case of your children, they thrived so it was a good strategy for them. Could you involvement as a parent played some role?

  16. Richard Aubrey says:

    A British general during WW I was said to have remarked, “The supply of heroes to the front must be maintained at all costs.”
    Given the situation, you can see his point.
    Problem is, the Brits were running out almost as fast as the Germans and when the Americans showed up with a fresh supply, the Brits and French were saved.
    The analogy is that there are not enough heroes for general use.
    Sure, there are wonder stories about some self-sacrificing genius with a fantastic talent for engaging and teaching. But there are not enough of these folks and a system which requires a steady supply is the wrong system.
    “The right teacher” is not the subject of some touchy-feely update of Blackboard Jungle, but ought to be no fewer than half the folks in the profession. Not because they’re all self-sacrificing geniuses, but because the system is arranged that their normality is sufficient. Some will work well with one kind of student, others with another kind.
    It is difficult to use lessons of the military or corporate institutions when one of the characteristics of the situation is apathy or active resistance on the part of those served.
    I used to teach classes on one thing or another when I was in the Infantry, but I had sergeants for classroom control and guys who were pretty sure that they would need this in six months, not six years.
    You can’t sell something to somebody who doesn’t want it, which is one reason the corporate world is lacking in lessons.
    Unfortunately for education, the failures here will be ascribed to lack of money. Too much discussion of the real reasons will be reproached as “blaming the victim”.

  17. Sharon McEachern says:

    Lord, after reading this post and the following comments, I feel frustrated and depressed!

    Maybe helping to literally save lives would renew inspiration and satisfaction in teaching. Of course, I suppose many teachers would shout out that it’s just another responsibility added onto a job that has too many already. Or, offer a change-resistant comment about change-resistant colleagues and principals unable or unwilling to motivate and lead, but…. here goes anyway.

    No one, including teachers, gives kids enough credit. For example, recent research shows that children as young as 9 years old can and should learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). After giving 147 grade-schoolers six hours of life-support training, researchers found that 86 percent of the kids performed CPR correctly — four months after the training. Ethic Soup blog suggests that we teach kids CPR in school:


    And then in its next post, Ethic Soup suggests that since sudden cardiac arrest often needs defibrillation along with CPR, it too should be made avaialable in our schools:


    I know, without a doubt, it would add to the kids’ self-esteem and self-confidence, which transfers to many other aspects of their school life. And some of these kids WILL save lives. What do you all think? Surely some of you can see the potential benefits.

  18. Sharon McEachern

    No. The public schools do not need yet another mandate, no matter how worthy. Six hours of training is a school day.

    CPR training could be taught in the already mandated health classes, but American schools devote little enough time to academic subjects. Persuade the health instructors to devote class time to this training.

  19. >>The teachers involved with this students failed her in so many ways…

    I put this solely on the teachers…

    …However, in this case…the teachers and administrators in the school(s) this child attended should have known better!! They failed her (and I imagine countless others like her miserably)!<<

    Strange that you would condemn *all* the teachers and administrators in this student's life based on an anecdote.

  20. Obviously, the school needs not only better funding but better, trained educators. Teaching should not be about just transmitting information – anyone can do that! An educator should be about, as Carl Jung says it best….

    “An understanding heart is everything in a teacher, and cannot be esteemed highly enough. One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our HUMAN FEELING.”

    Education has become a machine/system when it actually should be a process of self-discovery! Really because…it is inner peace and happiness that matters the most that will get you motivated and through life.

    A quote I like to share:
    “When I was 5 years old , my mom always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what i wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down “happy” They told me that I didnt understand the assignment and I told them that they didnt understand life”

    Education is not about getting a job! That economist thinking that drives this system is what is killing the value of education and learning. And obviously students get that thats the purpose of schooling because I know I did…and I was not happy that I was doing career studies in grade 5 when I didnt even know who I was before I could jump to the career force!

    If educators should see themselves as facilitators rather than masters of teaching….i dont think they would quit so easily. Yes, your principle and co-workers were careless but they should not win the struggle. In this case, a good teacher has gone and a the (most likely) most-disliked teachers remain…which is really unfortunate for the chidlren who have to see them EVERY single day, 5 days a week, 6 hours a day. Any child would give up if they had to accept that!

    By the way, I know a 10th grader who still does not know how to read the time, spell, read confidently etc..the list sadly goes on. I think the fault is a poor education system and training plus the social culture that kids are growing up in these days. Evidently, the mainstream MEDIA is winning the fight over who children rather learn from. And we all know the MEDIA does not care one bit about their wellbeing but their money and fanship. We need to look at other ways of teaching and learning….Western philosophy is not the only way and the more ways of knowing we know, the better.

    Hope this helps, its just my insight.

    PS. I did take CPR when I was in grade 4… I did not find it very useful because even though schools get extra funding for these programs…its useless if not taught effectively. It was actually a silly experience when I had to pump a boys chest. He seemed to take enjoy it a lot!

    Also, I just would like to end off with J Krisnamurti’s quote from one of his books:

    “An educator is not merely a giver of information;

    he is one who points the way to wisdom,

    to truth.

    As long as education does not cultivate an integrated

    outlook on life,

    it has very little significance.”

  21. Robert Wright says:

    Sarah Fine’s experience is common.

    What does that tell you?

    There’s something wrong with the system.

    Real educational reform would address every single point she brings up.

    My professional should attract and retain people who are hard working and talented, not just people who have a capacity for enduring neglect, abuse and absurdity.

  22. Richard Aubrey says:


    I agree that kids would do well to be taught immediately useful things.
    Up until a couple of hundred years ago, most of the world’s work was done by teenagers, their elders being either crippled or dead.
    Kids want to grow up. It’s hard-wired. Can you think of a toy for a kid older than, say, three which is not some analog of an adult implement? There would be no point to anything else.
    However, as another pointed out, not in school.
    Saw a renaissance fair where a knight had a discussion with a kid about the obligations of chivalry. Kid was about eight. He was LOOKING for dragons to slay.
    As somebody said, you got more family approbation for shoveling out the barn than for killing one million invaders from the planet Mongo.
    But today, we spend a whole lot of money on bigger and better ways to operate in a fake universe, with the kids coming out of the experience flabby and not at all improved in their ability to take care of real business.
    Still, school is not the place to fix that.
    I know. Parents! What a wild idea.

  23. Did you guys read the comments in the Washington Post? So many were so vicious. Some of the worst were comments by veteran teachers. A lot revealed class resentments. The comments implying race, as is often true, is a reminder of the dangers of playing the race card.

    Why are we having this discussion? Much of the discussion is a bare-knuckled debate over teacher quality and school reform. But much of this has nothing to do with schools. In the 90s a coalition of the Left and the Right embraced school “reform” and chose teachers as a scapegoat, and now teacher quality is becoming NCLB II. For my perpsective as a former Pro Choice lobbyist, I can’t ignore the parallels between the Anti-Choice (as opposed to Pro Life) activists who demonstrated the effectiveness of personalizing and demonizing the issue. These anti-Choice (as opposed to Pro-Lfe) activists sought to pin the blame for the ills of modern society on people who embodied the breakdown of traditional scoiety. And their scorched earth politics transformed politics and terrified Democrats.

    Let’s remember deindustrialization. Now, families who were damaged by the rapid disappearance of jobs, often on the backs of a history of oppression, are blamed for not raising their kids for the 21st century. Then, teachers are blamed for not solving the problem so that we could all declare ourselves Innocent. Its all so crazy.

    But the shortest path to political victory is so easy. Destroy your opponents. How we can reform schools while continually slandering teachers is beyond me. But how we can we help kids if we’re continually blaming them and their families?

    You say accountability, I say history of exploitation, Let’s call the whole blame game off.

  24. John said, ” For my perpsective as a former Pro Choice lobbyist, I can’t ignore the parallels between the Anti-Choice (as opposed to Pro Life) activists who demonstrated the effectiveness of personalizing and demonizing the issue. These anti-Choice (as opposed to Pro-Lfe) activists sought to pin the blame for the ills of modern society on people who embodied the breakdown of traditional scoiety. And their scorched earth politics transformed politics and terrified Democrats.”

    Talk about a non sequitur! School reform and abortion. Now there’s something to think about when it comes to improving student achievement. This type of nonsensical talk is one of the many reasons little or nothing positive is accomplished in the education field and so many good families who can avoid the public schools. Sheesh.

  25. Phillip Gonring says:

    Stacey’s post hits the nail on the head: teachers shouldn’t have to be superhuman and work 14 hour days. But I’m not sure that it’s the messianic complex that brings so many young people to the profession that is the problem. I’ve always figured that those working in schools need to suffer from the grand delusion that they can in fact cure all ills, get all kids to proficiency before they graduate, for instance. They have to have that no excuses attitude, I suppose. But those on the outside need to understand that the delusion is in fact far too grand, that they need to pull the levers that can make the jobs more doable, make schools more autonomous, ensure that there is adequate provision for professional development, a good balance of experienced and effective teachers and new talent that is actually mentored, and where compensation is at a level at which all that hard messianic work can pay off in the kinds of vacations and other perks that our top professionals can pay for.

  26. On the surface, it seems wonderful and beautiful that young teachers would be so devoted to their charges, so willing to do so much, so willing to spend extra time, so passionate.

    But it is not the behavior of a healthy person in a healthy career.

    Recent college grads don’t usually know that quite yet; increasingly, they haven’t yet formed their own families, so they haven’t yet found a real need to balance their nurturing tendencies between home and work. They lack the experience that comes with age and maturity in the work world to understand which political battles are worth fighting frontally and which are not, and which they are up to the task of. They haven’t yet learned the gifts of persuasion, keeping one’s own council, or otherwise navigating the social structures of the work world in a productive manner.

    And much like their students, they don’t know what they don’t know.

    In other fields, recent grads have similarly unpleasant initial career experiences. Yet after a job change or two, after some personal and professional maturity, it’s much easier to figure out something about the work world, and how to be effective at one’s job and like it at the same time.

    But teaching seems to suck in a particular kind of young person, one who is hoping to change the world, to save the world, or at least, save a tiny corner of it. Such a teacher is one whose own personal sense of worth or self is bound quite tightly to the well being of others–others over whom they really have NO CONTROL.

    Of course you burn out. You could burn out on anything you sink that much of your self into. But teaching, it seems, attracts that personality more than most other professions, and encourages these outrageous myths that such a selfless teacher is the ideal to which to aspire. It isn’t. And these myths are detrimental to schools, parents, and students, because they provide both another straw man to attack and a golden calf to worship: speak no ill of the vaunted, self sacrificing teacher! And since we can’t possibly have enough heroes to go around, why, of course, education is in shambles!

    Rather we need to define a set of good characteristics needed in a teacher and then deliberately teach those skills. An excellent teacher need not be born, but can be made.

    It’s terrific to find a career to be passionate about, and some young people thrive on it just as no-longer young people do. But real happiness and satisfaction comes from overcoming one’s OWN obstacles and achieving goals–not from needing others to do so.

    Truly effective teachers have fantastic subject content, excellent classroom management, a great manner of engaging students’ curiosity and optimism, and a healthy sense of self–one with good emotional boundaries where they can be touched by their students, and reach out to students, without becoming dependent on their students’ achievements for their own self worth.

  27. Tim10ber… I have trouble with the premise that retention as a “predictor” of dropout should serve as evidence of causation. Retention does not cause dropout, though the two seem to be steps in the same path. I believe that many other factors cause dropout, and retention is rather not a cause but a warning sign that dropout may be imminent…just as the dark clouds on the horizon don’t cause the thunderstorm an hour later, the clouds are the warning that the storm is coming; some other factors have already created the situation in which the storm has formed.

    If retention were applied more vigorously…as it should be and as many on this board have recommended, I sincerely doubt that we would see a dramatic surge in dropouts. We would see less “on time graduation” for sure, but I bet we’d see more graduation. Social promotion sets kids up for failure, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that. Why move a kid on if they are not ready for the next level? (Because we are too sensitive to how they feel in that moment, but disregard how they will feel down the road when a decade of conveyor-belt education has just moved them along.)

  28. Mark G.,

    I cited proof of my assertions, do you have proof for your assertion that more retentions would not lead to more dropouts?

  29. anon,

    I may or may not have be right to do so, but i thought long and hard before comparing the extreme antichoice movement (as opposed to the pro-life movement) to the extreme teacher-bashing that has built on the ant-teacher anger that is out there and encouraged more teacher- bashing.

    The following are comments that condemned Sarah Fine for:

    “Obama-like narcissism,” being “like a petulant child,” a “part of the Ivy League crud killing America,” “bitter and angry and I guess after dealing with the dredges of society,” a “Ivy league wuss!,” a “left-wing loser … didn’t really like teaching,” someone who believes she’s “the “Great White” hope, someone who needs to “please climb down from your cross,” and someone for whom “the students are better off without you,” a “woe-is-me, the Ivy League sacrificer”, who “does not have the soul of a teacher,” and a “woe-is-me, the Ivy League sacrificer.”

    What would you say about the following cryptic comments? Is the willingness to play the race cards of various races against each other any less damaging than other forms of dirty politics?

    A teacher said of her students “They beat the stew out of the dumb white kids (we have no black students)! Latino kids make up less than 20% of our students, yet garner about 50% of the awards. How’s that for a slap in the face to the race-addled trailer folks?”

    Another said of the student who cursed Ms. Fine, “Pass Shawna. Send her to a historically black college and let her get a government job.”

    Or, “Burnout” from teaching an urban classroom….Another euphemism for that which must not be spoken.” The commenter then recommended the link “What it’s Like to Teach Black Students.”

    Or, “Did you really believe that all the black kids were going to be impressed with the rich JAP?
    They knew you looked down on them, and would quit to write a book on Muffy and Daddy’s bucks.
    Vomit. Head to Martha’s Vineyard with Skip Gates and Obama and Veronica and your rich friends.”

    Or, you “seem to think that the answer to the poor, urban black student is a young, white hope from the suburbs… his writer has already burned out, … why not recruit dynamic urban teachers can relate better to these students… i know for a fact that 2 of my black friends who are in their later 30’s with management experience in the government, wanted to reach back and help their communities…
    i guess they weren’t young, inexperienced and white enough to pass the grade…

    Notice that the extreme anger and prejudice transcended race, generation, class, and political beliefs. Just as the propogandists saying that President Obama has a death panel are playing with fire, the Left and the Right who practice the politics of resentment are playing with fire.

  30. Are teachers not allowed to have lives outside of their classrooms? That is the major source of burnout.

    Add up the classtime, lesson planning, paper grading, parent-student-teacher meetings, faculty meetings, in-services, and school events (ranging from dances to sports events) – and you begin to realize that teachers (and administrators, though their pay makes up for it) become slaves to the K-12 school districts they teach at. If they show any sign of wanting to live their OWN lives as well as work, they are shown the iron hand under the velvet glove.

    On top of that, teachers give up their own lives and devote themselves to their students, and not only get no thanks, they get pushed around, micromanaged, insulted, and made a scapegoat on two sides (the administrators, and the parents). It’s a thankless job that gets no respect in our society. You’d have to be insane to NOT be miserable and burned out teaching K-12 in the USA these days.

  31. Mike in Texas, you have proof that retentions CAUSED dropouts? Was it not perhaps the factors which caused the retentions also caused the dropouts?

  32. BTW Mike in Texas, your cited proof declares an association…that retention is a predictor, not a cause. Associations and predictors are far different from causes. There is an association between the types of people who play football and the genders of people who play football, which does not mean that playing football makes me a certain gender or that being a certain gender makes me play football.

  33. Mark,

    What I meant was I had cited studies to show retention is not always such a great thing and can be a double edged sword.

  34. Ponderosa says:

    Merovingian –well-said.

    Mike G., the currently fashionable alternative to retention is “intervention” –that is, identifying the laggards and giving them special help to catch them up. Our district talks about this all the time, but I haven’t seen it work. No one comes to my classroom to give extra help to the struggling readers, and, unfortunately I don’t have the wherewithal to remediate them. In fact, I’m skeptical that it can be done. As E.D. Hirsch says, reading comprehension ability is a slow growing plant. Teaching a few reading strategies does not compensate for large vocab and knowledge deficits. Have you seen intervention work? What do you think we should do to prevent kids from falling many grade-levels behind their peers?

  35. I’ve seen intervention work. In the absence of a learning disability — those kids who are behind just because of poor work habits — it works fairly quickly if you can get them to settle.

    Lucky for my kids, I do have the wherewithal and building support to remediate them. Not uncommon for me to see reading comprehension gains of several years. Not all come up to grade level and show all the work on the state exams, but a few do.

  36. Ponderosa, I’m very familiar with the concept of intervention…my team and I have implemented a model which is entering its 6th year and has shown success and promise…and does not require a major expenditure so is therefore more safe from budget cuts than fancy programs with a lot of bells and whistles. Intervention can be done with success if a few key elements are in place: don’t necessarily demand lower standards (counterintuitive for some who think that remediation is just that, but many students will rise to the challenge if given the intermediary steps to meet the mainstream standard), focus not just on content retention but also the skills and strategies necessary for that content to be absorbed (i.e. text interaction skills, study and time management skills, organization skills, self-advocacy skills, the things we assume students should just “do” but research shows are lacking in students who fall behind), help kids develop an identity where they see themselves as students (sounds like a “soft” skill, but self-perception is an indicator which separates successful students from unsuccessful students), and provide consistent and supportive adult connections who do not coddle but also do not dominate and demean.

    Intervention cannot simply be handing a kid an alternative curriculum. In fact, I advocate maintaining mainstream curriculum while handing the kid supplemental skills training in how to be a “student.”

    Intervention also needs to have reasonable goals and recognize that progress toward a high standard is as meaningful and valuble as achieving the standard. If only meeting standard is prized and progress is not valued, then progress is paralyzed and the standard may never be met.

  37. “What I meant was I had cited studies to show retention is not always such a great thing and can be a double edged sword.”

    His point, Mike, was that they didn’t show that at all. They showed an association.

    There’s an association between carrying a lighter and being a smoker. Does that mean you shouldn’t carry a lighter, because you might turn into a smoker?

    One shouldn’t read causation when it doesn’t exist. Otherwise one might think that being wet causes drowning. One might think that wearing a helmet causes head injury. One might even think that wearing a bulletproof vest causes you to get shot at.

    The only way to prove causation would be a double-blind experimental study. This is never going to happen for obvious reasons. Until that happens, we have only speculation.

    For myself, I can’t be sure how long I’ll be able to tolerate banging my head against the wall to attempt to insure the success of kids who won’t lift a finger to help themselves.