‘No excuses’ schools try to cut teacher stress

“No excuses” charter schools hire young idealists, work them very hard and expect many to burn out and leave after a few years.  That’s the old model, writes Sara Neufeld in The Atlantic. Some charters are providing more support and shorter work hours to keep young teachers on the job.

James Cavanagh is 22 years old, fresh out of the University of Delaware. With his degree in elementary education, he could have gotten a job anywhere—and he chose to teach at one of the most demanding public schools in America.

His college buddies were hired at schools with mid-afternoon dismissals and two and a half months of summer vacation. For not much more pay, Cavanagh worked nearly all of August and this fall is putting in 12-hour days, plus attending graduate school.

In exchange, he gets to be a part of one of the nation’s top charter schools, North Star Academy in Newark, where poor, minority students routinely outperform their peers in wealthier ZIP codes on standardized tests. And he’s getting extensive support designed to make him both effective and eager to stick around.

He gets to school by 6:15 am and usually goes home at 6:30 pm when the building shuts down. On Monday nights and Saturdays, he takes graduate education classes.

However, when another fifth-grade math teacher returns from maternity leave this month, Cavanagh “will go from teaching three 1.5-hour classes a day to one class and spend the other periods working with students individually and in small groups,” writes Neufeld. North Star tries to give new teachers a lighter schedule. 

YES Prep, a network of 13 high-performing charters in Houston, doesn’t have a long school year, she writes. Instead, students get a chance to attend “the types of summer camps, wilderness expeditions and international travel opportunities enjoyed by their middle class peers.”

Ascend charters in Brooklyn have cut the academic day by 45 minutes, to eight hours, while giving teachers a raise. “Middle school students stay for homework help from local college students, followed by enrichment activities such as karate, dance and African drumming that are typically led by community members and partner organizations so teachers can go home,” writes Neufeld.

Teachers are grayer — and greener

Overall, the teaching force is becoming “larger, older, younger and less experienced, more female, more racially diverse and more consistent in academic ability,” according to a Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) trends report. (There are peaks for younger and older teachers and fewer teachers in the middle.)

Thirty percent of teachers who entered the profession in 1997 had quit by 2003. Teachers have similar attrition to police offers, but double the rate of engineers and pharmacists, writes Leslie Kan, a Bellwether analyst.

Employee Turnover By Occupation
Teachers and police officers are among the few professions that still participate in a pension system, writes Kan. “Pension systems are best suited for employees who stay an entire career, but they generally benefit only a small percentage of teachers because of high turnover in the profession.”


Parents make the best teachers

Parents make the best teachers, writes Sara Mosle in Slate Magazine.

Some charter schools hire young teachers who are willing to work long, grueling hours for low pay, reports the New York Times. Most leave after two or three years to be replaced by a new crop of young idealists.

Inexperience in the classroom isn’t the only problem with this model, writes Mosle. Young teachers lack experience as parents.

A Teach for America teacher in the program’s first year, Mosle taught for three years in New York City schools. “I was single, childless, and clueless about even the most basic aspects of child-rearing,” she recalls. “My students’ parents seemed like creatures from another planet.”

Nearly 20 years later, now a mother, she returned to the classroom to teach writing at Philip’s Academy Charter School in Newark.

. . . being a parent has made me a better teacher. While I still have a reformer’s high expectations for my students, I am more flexible about discipline, in part because I’d never want my daughter to be so docile she wouldn’t rock the boat. Now when parents approach me with worries or high hopes for the future, I have greater respect for their commingled love and fears. I also have a far stronger sense than I did at 25 that children’s lives . . . flow in waves of achievements and setbacks.

In 2002, Ryan Hill started TEAM Academy, the first KIPP charter school in Newark. He worked more than 100 hours a week “in a profession he regarded as less of a vocation than a crusade.”

At the time, he thought of his school like a Silicon Valley startup, which like all new ventures demanded insane hours. “We were a bunch of 25-year-olds,” he recalled in a conversation this spring. “We’d be there every day, including on Saturdays and Sundays. We’d have students at the school until 10 o’clock each night—kids who needed a place to do homework or whatever.” It was part of the school’s ethos and formula for success: longer days and a longer school year. Hill loved the job. “It was hard work, but it was also good work,” he said.

It was also unsustainable as teachers got older, married and started families just as “they were blossoming into full flower as educators.” Unwilling to lose his veteran teachers, Hill began to offer flexible hours to top teachers who’d become parents.

In Our School, I write about attending a staff meeting at a start-up charter school and realizing I was old enough to be the mother of every person in the room — and not the teen mother either. I was 49. I was the only parent in the room too, though the principal’s wife was pregnant.

Flexibility, respect cuts teacher turnover

Rachel Spector quit teaching in low-performing, all-minority East Palo Alto (California) after four years, “squashed” by pressure to teach in a prescribed way to raise test scores.  “I didn’t feel respected.”

After a year teaching in San Francisco, which was even worse, she returned to teach seventh-grade English and social studies at Costaño School in East Palo Alto’s Ravenswood district. Principal Gina Sudaria promised, “As long as you’re teaching the standards and you’re teaching at a rigorous level, you can teach however you want to.”

“More and more, I’m the instructional leader of my classroom,” Spector says. 

Long plagued by high teacher turnover, Ravenswood is trying to keep good teachers by giving them more flexibility and input, reports the Peninsula Press.

Ravenswood teachers cope with big challenges — 77 percent of students aren’t proficient in English — for less pay than teachers in nearby affluent districts. Teachers start at $42,460, almost 20 percent lower than neighboring Menlo Park and Palo Alto.

 At Costaño, a K-8 school, Principal Sudaria uses peer coaches to help teachers learn from each other. She also stresses collaborative decision-making.

“Teachers are the ones who are doing the groundwork every single day, so their input and their knowledge needs to be highly valued,” she said.

The staff is divided into five committees that meet weekly on topics involving curriculum, safety and parent outreach. Sudaria said that allowing them to be involved beyond their teaching or support role gets everyone more invested in the school.

Turnover is down and the school’s Academic Performance Index score has increased from 612 to 783 in the past four years, nearing the state’s goal of 800.

Finance wannabes try Teach for America

With hiring slow on Wall Street, business and economics graduates are applying to Teach for America, deferring the search for a finance job, reports the New York Times.

In the last several years, hundreds of such would-be finance professionals and management consultants have taken their high-powered ambitions and spreadsheet modeling skills to the classroom.

. . .  Teach for America says that its 2012 class contained about 400 recent graduates with a major in business or economics. Of those with professional experience, about 175 worked in finance.

The new recruits bring valuable analytical skills to teaching, reports the Times.

Ross Peyser, a 2011 graduate of Cornell and a second-year teacher in New Orleans, was once an intern at Oliver Wyman, a financial services consulting firm. As a teacher, he still plays the role of data analyst, creating Excel spreadsheets to diagnose his students’ learning needs.

. . .  “I had a stronger basis to do my data analysis compared to all the other teachers in my school,” Mr. Peyser said.

Teach for America requires only a two-year commitment, which means that many corps members leave the classroom just as they’ve hit their stride as teachers. “Of its 28,000 alumni, two-thirds remain in education roles, including as principals and superintendents (about half of those educators are in classroom settings),” TFA tells the Times. But turnover rate is likely to be higher for those with a shot at high-paying finance jobs.

Why do teachers quit? Bad principals

Why Do So Many Teachers Quit Their Jobs? Because They Hate Their Bosses Writing in The Atlantic, John Tierney summarizes research on why new teachers quit.

. . . the most important factor influencing commitment was the beginning teacher’s perception of how well the school principal worked with the teaching staff as a whole. This was a stronger factor than the adequacy of resources, the extent of a teacher’s administrative duties, the manageability of his or her workload, or the frequency of professional-development opportunities.

A third of teachers in their first two years change schools or quit teaching altogether, Tierney writes.  Turnover is higher in urban schools with low-income, hard-to-teach students.

The new research affirms much of what earlier studies have found. For example, an earlier (2003) multiyear study of 50 teachers in Massachusetts found that teachers who left the profession often “described principals who were arbitrary, abusive, or neglectful.”

It’s not just new teachers, Tierney adds. Job satisfaction for all teachers depends on the principal’s managerial style.

Teacher turnover hurts achievement

Teacher turnover hurts student achievement, concludes a study presented at a Center for Longitudinal Data in Education Research conference, reports Teacher Beat.

Less-effective teachers are more likely to leave troubled schools, an earlier analysis found. But any benefits from losing the least-effective teachers are outweighed by having a staff in constant flux, the new research suggests.

• For each analysis, students taught by teachers in the same grade-level team in the same school did worse in years where turnover rates were higher, compared with years in which there was less teacher turnover.

• An increase in teacher turnover by 1 standard deviation corresponded with a decrease in math achievement of 2 percent of a standard deviation; students in grade levels with 100 percent turnover were especially affected, with lower test scores by anywhere from 6 percent to 10 percent of a standard deviation based on the content area.

The turnover effect was greater in schools with more low-achieving and black students, the study found.

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.

A turnover gap for minority teachers

Black and Latino teachers are leaving the profession “in droves,” says Betty Achinstein, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the co-author of Change(d) Agents: New Teachers of Color in Urban Schools.

“Teachers of color” make up only 17 percent of the teaching force, despite the rising percentage of minority students, reports Miller-McCune.  Schools are hiring more minority teachers, but also losing more, says Richard Ingersoll, a Penn professor of education.

According to the Penn study, more than half of all public school minority teachers are working in high-poverty, high-minority urban schools, compared to only one-fifth of white teachers, though white teachers still make up the majority of teachers in those schools.

The turnover rate for minority teachers was 24 percent higher than for whites in 2008-09, the Penn study found.  Difficult working conditions drive teachers out. “The reality is, the minority teachers are not more likely than white teachers to stay in those tough places,” Ingersoll said.

Study: Bonuses boost retention, scores

More teachers stayed on the job and students’ scores improved modestly at Texas schools that offered performance pay, reports a study by researchers at Vanderbilt University, the University of Missouri and Rand Corp. Bigger bonuses — $3,000 and up — produced better results, “although a majority of districts chose to spread the money around to more teachers and give smaller payments,” notes the Dallas News.

The study cautioned, though, that achievement gains shown by merit pay schools were small and could have resulted in part from other initiatives at those schools. Student test scores are a primary factor in determining bonuses, a criterion that many teachers oppose.

The merit-pay plan strongly affected teacher retention:  “The probability of turnover surged among teachers who did not receive a DATE award, while it fell sharply among teachers who did receive such an award,” the researchers said.