The case for turnover

After praising E.D. Kain’s defense of job security for teachers in Forbes, Atlantic blogger Megan McArdle makes the case for firing teachers.

She assumes that teacher quality matters, even if it can’t erase the effects of dysfunctional families, and that it’s possible to identify very bad teachers,though  much harder to determine who’s mediocre.

She proposes raising pay in exchange for offering less job security, attracting more risk takers to teaching. The job now appeals to  people who value “good early retirement benefits” and a low risk of being fired, she writes. 

 Minimizing teacher turnover shouldn’t be the goal, McArdle argues. Despite its costs, turnover  “also has benefits: fresh blood, lower burnout rates, and an incentive for teachers to keep performing.”

 The whole idea of hiring someone in their early twenties and employing them forever . . . breeds an organization that is insular — resistant to new ideas, suspicious of outsiders, resentful of its nominal clients.  We should be looking for ways to make teaching more open to part-timers and people in second, third, or eighth career cycles, and to make it easier for teachers to move around between schools and districts, and between teaching and other industries.

Teaching should be a “high-intensity, high-reward job,” McArdle writes. “We’re going to get people burning out.”  They should move on to other jobs.

Read the whole thing and see what you think.

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Comments

  1. I’m all for removing the worst teachers, but its never as feasible as people seem to think. If we remove the bottom 10% of teachers, where do we find 300,000 qualified individuals to teach those spots? If we move around the remaining 90% to cover the gaps, isn’t it possible that some of those 90% will perform worse when moved to a different school, demographic, or culture?

  2. I don’t think it’s necessary to remove 10%. Even removing 1% expeditiously would have a ripple effect in two directions: parents and the general public would believe that performance counts in public educaiton and would stop demonizing the huge majority of teachers who are conscientious. At the same time, the possibility of removal would motivate the next 10% to work harder, seek assistance, and improve.

  3. Minimizing teacher turnover does have its advantages:

    1. The ability to build consistent academic programs. If your teachers are leaving every 2-3 years, it’s very difficult to run long-term drama programs, after-school tutoring programs, or to build consistent teacher teams.

    2. You can built a cohesive staff.

    3. Your staff will understand the long-term patterns and needs of a community and forge relationships with families that last through multiple siblings.

    Those are just off the top of my head. Fresh blood has its benefits, too, of course, but I think the best combination is a balance.

    I can’t help catching a whiff of ageism in some of these proposals to fire teachers.

  4. That should read, “You can build a more cohesive staff.”

  5. tim-10-ber says:

    Thank you!!

    Yes, “fresh blood” is good even in education and even when teachers/administrators come from non-traditional backgrounds…this is good, very good….

  6. Nana, if we can prove that the things you are talking about are actually happening at a given school because of a “cohesive” group of teachers, who have been there a long time…then that is good. I’m not sure having a large percentage of teachers with many years of experience guarantees those things will happen though.

    Why do you think there is ageism? I think there is sort of a reverse ageism(in the district where I live) to pay a more senior teacher nearly twice what a younger teacher makes, without any regard to performance.

    As far as fresh blood…I think that can be a beneficial thing in any organization. A person staying with a given company for a lifetime may have been a good thing once upon a time…now not so much.

  7. Mike Curtis says:

    Splendid idea for improving teacher quality and setting a standard for those educators who are allowed to pick up the pace. Would a corollary be to also drop the bottom 10% of students from the rolls? Imagine the improvement in classroom behavior, study habits and work ethic for those students deemed worthy enough to stay until they burn out! I’m all in…let’s do it. Everybody wins.

  8. Cranberry says:

    I think Megan McCardle doesn’t have any children yet, so she’s talking from a position of ignorance.

  9. I think Megan McCardle doesn’t have any children yet, so she’s talking from a position of ignorance.

    That’s her default position.

  10. I don’t know how I feel about high teacher turnover, honestly- on one hand, I think it’d be fantastic for some schools that suffer from teachers that have been teaching 20+ years and burned out ten years ago.

    On the other hand, I feel like students in low income situations actually need consistency, and school is usually the one place where they can get it. How does having a new teacher every three years give that consistency?

    And what about those of us who want to stay in the profession and make it our life’s work? Are we to get forced out just because we’re not “fresh blood?”

  11. What qualifies blogger McArdle to make such claims?

    Where to begin?

    Old teachers, she claims, are “resistant to new ideas”. I wish MORE old teachers were resistant to new ideas –so many stupid new ideas come down the pike. True, a higher proportion of old teachers resist –frequently, WITH GOOD REASON. Young teachers usually lack the perspective to see through the charlatans’ salesmanship and glom on to the latest fads uncritically.

    McArdle: can young teachers possess wisdom? Does wisdom mean anything to you?

    Have you ever had an awesome veteran teacher? Do you think accumulated experience has anything to do with his awesomeness?

    This is my seventh year teaching the same world history class. I know I am far better at it now that when I started, and I know that I will keep getting better because I refine the course every year.

    My effectiveness would take a big hit if I were switched to a different course or subject. Wanna raise the quality of teaching? Don’t change teachers’ assignments!

    This woman is as ignorant and presumptuous as so many lay people who glibly opine about fixing education.

    Let me glibly opine about the blogging profession: fire bloggers when they reach 40. At that point they start catching on to new trends too slowly. Fresh blood = good!

  12. “As far as fresh blood…I think that can be a beneficial thing in any organization. A person staying with a given company for a lifetime may have been a good thing once upon a time…now not so much.”

    What happened between once upon a time and now? How is it a positive development? And can you really rule out the possibility that most older teachers are very effective?

    This notion (which I assume is Wall Street/corporate-driven) that a person who wants to devote his or her entire working life to being a classroom teacher is somehow defective or inept or worthy of suspicion . . . it’s tragic.

  13. Roger Sweeny says:

    Ben F,

    McArdle doesn’t say to fire everyone. She doesn’t say nobody should be a lifer. She says, “I doubt that the lowest possible turnover rate is compatible with the best possible education. Turnover has costs, but it also has benefits.”

    I suspect she would love that awesome veteran teacher. She would also love that awesome second career teacher and the awesome part-timer who spends the rest of the day making money outside the ed world. Diversity, man.

  14. My comments about fresh blood were meant to apply to any sort of workplace setting, not just education. I think one does gain a different perspective having a variety of work experience.

    That being said, teacher salaries in our district are public record. I’m not sure that someone with more years of experience automatically is a better teacher, or should be compensated based strictly on years in the field.

  15. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Ben F Saith:

    What qualifies blogger McArdle to make such claims?

    She’s smarter than you and able to understand someone’s actual point rather than responding to what she assumes that they are saying.

    ***************************

    Cranberry Saith:

    I think Megan McCardle doesn’t have any children yet, so she’s talking from a position of ignorance.

    What the hell does having children have to do with understanding what makes for a good school? You could just as easily argue that having children biases you in inappropriate ways and that people with children can’t possibly approach education objectively.

    Neither argument has any hint of soundness, or even validity.

    This may be the single dumbest thing I’ve ever seen you type, Cranberry.

  16. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I should clarify that I don’t necessarily agree with Megan’s points — but the attacks on her were silly and unjustified and couldn’t go without at least a snarky retort.

  17. Ms. McCardle may be speaking from a position of ignorance, but having children is not the magic wand that rectifies that. Most people–parents, nonparents, educators, noneducators, CEOs, non CEOs, etc. have not the faintest idea what goes on in most schools–how they function, what is taught, what works, what doesn’t. Their supposed solutions have little to do with the actual problems. Most people speak about education based on their own anecdotal experiences and have too little of those for it to qualify as experience.

  18. Charles R. Williams says:

    Changes in the way teachers are compensated are necessary and this would result in more turnover. This does not mean turnover per se is a good thing. Entry into the profession needs to be easier and the disincentives to leaving need to be reduced.

    I know two science teachers who got the required credentials and became school counselors. They are paid more and work less even though they made a greater contribution as science teachers and science teachers are harder to find. Is this turnover? Is this good for schools? Well, at least they are less stressed and can look forward to a much higher retirement.

  19. There’s a 10+% turnover in my building every year as it is — plenty of fresh blood. It’s a lot higher in struggling districts. How has it been a good thing there?

    Schools need a balance — I think that word is anathema in the “reform” movement, though.

  20. What this is really about is getting rid of the experienced teachers, who cost more and know bullshit when they see it.

    But let’s look at this from a financial standpoint. The “reformers” propose using test scores to evaluate teachers, despite tons of studies showing test scores are poor measure. They would use these scores to get rid of the more expensive teachers and replace them with the youngsters.

    Research shows it takes 3 to 5 years for teachers to really learn their craft. In those first 5 years 50% of teachers will leave the profession. Those who remain are better teachers but cost the school districts more.

    Now let’s suppose you a “reformer” who thinks you should be allowed to manage schools. Those veterans are going to cost you more money and call you on your bullshit, so you have to have a method for getting rid of them, thus the war on teachers’ due process rights. Then you have to have a supply of new young teachers you can push around, and who won’t be around long enough to spot long term trends. Enter TFA and a host of other alternative certifications. In fact, TFA is kind enough to sign their people up for only 2 years, and bingo, you get new cheap teachers.

    If you have enough political mojo, you won’t even need honest to goodness teachers. You can buy yourself some laws saying you don’t need college graduates, as the charter crowd has done here in Texas, and you can pick up minimun wagers off the street.

    You won’t need to worry about test scores, you’ll have already bought a law exempting you from them.

  21. Cranberry says:

    This may be the single dumbest thing I’ve ever seen you type, Cranberry.

    You’re setting a high bar there, Mr. Lopez!

    IF Ms. McArdle had any experience with schools as a consumer (i.e., parent), she might not make the glib assumption that experienced teachers are burnt out and new teachers are raring to go. She might not assume that new ideas are a good thing in education.

    When she writes, It breeds an organization that is insular–resistant to new ideas, suspicious of outsiders, resentful of its nominal clients. , I know she has no idea what goes on in an ordinary classroom. Some of the worst teachers are new, because they have to cater to whatever New initiative the New principal has cooked up to satisfy the New superintendent. The new teachers don’t have a choice in the matter, as they are not tenured, but many of the New Ideas are poppycock–as the moderately experienced teachers have figured out.

    I particularly enjoyed (sarcasm!) this point of Ms. McArdle:

    We end the temptation for long-time teachers to phone it in: teach the same lesson plans over and over, give essentially the same tests, etc. Yes, there are many dedicated teachers who keep putting in 110% for decades, but it is ludicrous to suggest that this describes every single teacher in America.

    As a parent, I’m not bothered by that at all. Guess what? My kids have managed to spend ONE year in EACH grade so far. If a teacher uses the lesson plans from last year, SO WHAT? In what way does it harm my kid to be subjected to a recycled lesson plan the teacher has had the chance to fine-tune?

    As a matter of experience as a parent, some of the most exhausted teachers are those who are attempting to satisfy every new initiative from the administration, while going to school at night to receive a further degree, while trying to write new lesson plans in a subject he/she has never taught before. Oh, and while trying to learn the school’s protocols in documenting special ed paperwork.

    The business world puts a great deal of emphasis on people “putting in 110%.” It’s a value system which isn’t compatible with teaching. For one thing, it’s impossible. You can put in 100%. At some point, as a parent, I would hope that the teachers teaching my children have figured out their strengths. Reinventing the wheel–with gusto!–isn’t exciting to me.

    The Teach for America teaching corps is an exciting idea. It’s not a realistic plan for improving America’s schools. I would venture to say that the mild success measured on test scores in math (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teach_For_America#Educational_Impact) reflect the TFA teachers’ innate intelligence and elite education, rather than their status as new teachers.

    We shift the selection pool from people who are more interested in decades-long job security to people who are more interested in money. Not everyone who is interested in job security wants to be able to coast–but people who want to be able to coast are likely to be very attracted to job security. Universities mitigate this effect by making it so spectacularly hard to get to the point of being a tenured professor. Primary schools don’t have that option.
    We end up with fewer burned-out teachers still in the classroom. If we make teaching the high-intensity, high reward job it should always be, then we’re going to get people burning out.

    Ms. McArdle should start her own school. It should be really fun seeing her try to convince lawyers and stockbrokers that they really want to teach for a couple of years–and convincing parents that ex-lawyers and ex-stockbrokers are innately wonderful, empathetic, inspiring teachers.

    Laying off older, more expensive teachers is not good for those teachers . . . but it is good for the schools. It means you can achieve necessary budget cuts by laying off the fewest teachers.

    If you lay off a teacher early, you’re still paying for their pension. They won’t be fired, they’ll be receiving a pension. You’ll be paying two (or three–given longer modern life spans) people to do the work one person could do.

  22. John Thompson says:

    Among the great comments above, my favorite was:

    Old teachers, she claims, are “resistant to new ideas”. I wish MORE old teachers were resistant to new ideas –so many stupid new ideas come down the pike. True, a higher proportion of old teachers resist –frequently, WITH GOOD REASON

    McArdle says she doesn’t EXACTLY want to compare teaching to making McDonalds hamburgers, but she doesn’t say exactly how her ideas are different. Oh yeah, she doesn’t necessarily want to speed the assembly line for hamburgers to 110%.

    Increasing intensity of teaching wouldn’t increase burnout? Where did that come from?

    She doesn’t understand why unions can’t help fire teacers. Well maybe because that is illegal. We need to change contracts and then legally we can together fire teachers.

    But that’s indicative of her logic, roll the dice now. Address reality later.

    Destroying teacher protections to highlight the defficiencies in principals will improve the principal and teaching corps?!?!

    The second to the last thing we want is more risk takers. The last thing we want is more exhausted “risk takers.”

    No the very last thing we need is clueless risk-takers like McArdle. She’s take the risky gambles of merit pay and ending seniority, and presumbly undercutting due process. She knows that many experiments will fail, But she’ll trade the benefits, which she admits will be little and accepting the worsening of teaching as a profession, because she heroically wants some sort of big changes.

    Maybe we don’t need experienced editors. Let writers throw out her type of opinions and informed writing will mysteriously emerge …

    She’s not a serious contributor to education discussions, but she’s a great illustration of some “reformers” knownothingism.

  23. Cranberry says:

    What the hell does having children have to do with understanding what makes for a good school? You could just as easily argue that having children biases you in inappropriate ways and that people with children can’t possibly approach education objectively.

    Who’s the customer for education services?

    In my opinion, in the public sphere, it’s the politicians. Not the children, not the parents. It’s a dialogue between the teachers’ union and the politicians, not a dialogue between parents and schools. This explains why so many impossible things are demanded of teachers, such as differentiation in classes where the ability level ranges from kindergarten to graduate school. No politician can admit that there are differences in students’ ability and willingness to learn.

    In the private sphere, the customers are the parents. I feel that the private and parochial systems do a much better job educating students, because their customers are the parents. No sane parent will look for a school with high teacher turnover, inexperienced young teachers, consistent new initiatives, and large class sizes. (Many of those characteristics do describe inner city public schools, by the way.)

    Would you respect the restaurant review of someone who had never eaten in a restaurant? Would you respect auto-buying advice from someone who didn’t possess a driver’s license? Why do you respect someone who seriously seems to believe that a used car salesman would make a better teacher than an experienced teacher?

  24. Michael E. Lopez says:


    Who’s the customer for education services?

    The same as for any other business: the customer is whoever is paying the bills. In this case, that includes Megan McArdle.

    You might think that professionals don’t have customers in the same way that business do, though. Doctors and lawyers, for instance, have a special sort of relationship with their patients and clients, regardless of who is paying the bills. Indeed, it’s common for attorneys to get written agreements from the parties in cases where one party is financing another making sure that the paying party understands that they aren’t in charge, precisely because the attorney’s first duty has to be to his client. So you might think that teachers have a duty to their students (or perhaps to the parents by proxy) regardless of who is paying the bills.

    But all this has nothing to do with who is qualified to talk about reforms and education. Megan McArdle is talking about economic incentives and labor structures; this is something she knows a whole lot about — more, I’d wager a considerable sum, than anyone on this thread, including me.

    You have to be smoking some serious crack to think that the laws of economics simply vanish when they are applied to teaching jobs. You might think that they change in certain important ways, and that’s a perfectly good way to argue against Megan’s points. You might think that she’s wrong about some of her assumptions (I think she’s probably wrong about the incentive to efficiency promoted by easier firings, or at least she’s underdescribing the phenomenon.) But you can’t say she’s not qualified because she’s not a “customer” — she is a customer, and in any event she’s very qualified..


    Would you respect the restaurant review of someone who had never eaten in a restaurant?

    It would be simply dishonest for a person to write a review of a restaurant that they’d never eaten in. But McArdle isn’t reporting her experiences with the school system so the analogy doesn’t hold; she’s offering a type of policy analysis and she’s a woman with a lot of experience at policy analysis of various kinds.


    Would you respect auto-buying advice from someone who didn’t possess a driver’s license?

    Sure, if they knew more about cars than I did. I didn’t get my license till I was 21, and I knew quite a bit about how different cars performed by that time.


    Why do you respect someone who seriously seems to believe that a used car salesman would make a better teacher than an experienced teacher?

    Now you’re just being silly. “Seriously seems to believe?”

    Look: obviously the truth of that particular statement, if Megan said it, would depend on the salesman and the teacher in question. Now, one might think, based on what you said, that she made some sort of general assertion about the superiority of used car salesmen to experienced teachers. On what grounds do you assert that Megan has stated that all/any/any given used car salesman is better than all/any/any given experienced teacher?

    I don’t recall her even mentioning car salesmen, so I will assume you’re talking about what she says here:


    We should be looking for ways to make teaching more open to part-timers and people in second, third, or eighth career cycles, and to make it easier for teachers to move around between schools and districts, and between teaching and other industries.

    So what are the benefits of making teachers easier to fire?

    * We get rid of the worst teachers–the ones who now take years to fire. The kids they’re teaching would be better off with an utter neophyte.

    I’ve no idea at all why you’d think she would believe what you have asserted she believes. Making teachers easier to fire wouldn’t magically rob schools and districts of their ability to conduct interviews, or to review resumes/CV’s. Megan’s proposal isn’t “HEY LET’S MAKE IT EASIER TO FIRE TEACHERS AND ABANDON OUR COMMON SENSE WHILE WE’RE AT IT!” and you’re doing yourself no service by pretending that it is.

    Frankly, I’m starting to get the feeling that I sometimes get in the classes I teach: I suspect that Megan’s article is going over a lot of people’s heads. I suspect that Megan’s arguments are a little more complex and subtle than a lot of people here are used to reading, and that many of you are reading them as if they’re supposed to be political commentary. They’re not. Her arguments are economic policy arguments shortened into a blog form. They require more attention than your typical blog post or newspaper article.

  25. “When she writes, It breeds an organization that is insular–resistant to new ideas, suspicious of outsiders, resentful of its nominal clients.”

    No, when she said this, I knew that she understood the education field perfectly well.

    “If we remove the bottom 10% of teachers, where do we find 300,000 qualified individuals to teach those spots?”

    You have to be kidding. There are many more than 300,000 very well qualified individuals who can fill every teaching position that currently exists in the US if every teacher quit tomorfrow. They just don’t have education degrees because the field has been granted a monopoly by the states, that is, education is largely a closed shop. Close the education schools, get rid of the unnecessary requirement of a license, let the schools hire whom they please by the criteria they choose, and watch the schools change for the better over time.