No Love for Irreplaceable Teachers
According to a recent study, many public schools do not retain their best teachers – the “irreplaceables.” Is anyone surprised?
A study released a couple of weeks ago by the New Teacher Project – now known as TNTP – claims that urban schools….
…are systematically neglecting their best teachers, losing tens of thousands every year even as they keep many of their lowest-performing teachers indefinitely – with disastrous consequences for students, schools, and the teaching profession.
The study by TNTP documents the real teacher retention crisis in America’s schools: not only a failure to retain enough teachers, but a failure to retain the right teachers.
The report, referring to the very best teachers as “irreplaceables,” claims that of the districts studied, about 20 percent of them fell into that category.
On average, each year they help students learn two to three additional months’ worth of math and reading compared with the average teacher, and five to six months more compared to low-performing teachers. Better test scores are just the beginning: Students whose teachers help them make these kinds of gains are more likely to go to college and earn higher salaries as adults, and they are less likely to become teenage parents.
Among this report’s findings:
• The school districts lost their most successful teachers at a rate comparable to the attrition of the least successful teachers.
• “Irreplaceable” teachers who experienced two or more of eight different recruitment strategies—including advancement opportunities, regular performance feedback, and public recognition—said they planned to stay at their schools nearly twice as long as other teachers.
• In one of the districts studied, only a fifth of the lowest-performing teachers were encouraged to leave, while more than a third were given incentives to stay.
• “Irreplaceable” teachers were much more likely to stay at schools with a strong instructional culture in which principals set strong performance expectations for them.
The report reserves particularly strong criticism for principals, who it contends have misjudged the retention issue by turning a blind eye to quality in retention decisions.
“Principals tell themselves low-performers are going to improve, and therefore they don’t have to address it; and they say there’s nothing they can do to retain high-performing teachers,” said Timothy Daly, the president of TNTP. “Both of those things we see as largely untrue.
In addition to principals, the TNTP report lays blame on policies that “impede smarter retention practices.”
A number of policy barriers hamper principals from making smarter retention decisions. Because of inflexible, seniority-dominated compensation systems, for example, 55 percent of Irreplaceables earn a lower salary than the average low-performing teacher.
In other words, the problem lies with incompetent, disinterested or lazy principals and stifling, unionized work rules with their insistence on tenure, seniority and Byzantine dismissal statutes. In my view the latter carries more weight because invariably even good and caring principals have their hands tied by union contacts that are written in stone and enforced by the worst elements in the profession. A case in point is Jaime Escalante, probably the greatest teacher of our time, who didn’t care much for the union contact. Often thwarting its rules, he was ultimately hounded out of Los Angeles by UTLA, the local teachers union, for essentially being too dedicated, too dynamic and too successful at teaching calculus to the “unteachables” at Garfield High in East Los Angeles.
While I have great respect for TNTP, I’m not sure that this study adds much to the debate. This report isn’t a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the steep slide in American public education for the last 40 or so years. In fact, its recent conclusions pretty much echo its own 2009 study, “The Widget Effect: Our National Failure to Acknowledge and Act on Differences in Teacher Effectiveness.”
In a separate study, TNTP analyzed Chicago’s schools and found that….
…56 percent of principals admit to inflating teacher ratings. The reasons why are striking, and each can be traced back to the union contract:
30 percent of the principals said the teacher’s tenure would prevent dismissal regardless of the rating;
34 percent said it wasn’t worth enduring the lengthy union grievance proceedings;
51 percent said the union contract makes it difficult to lower the rating of a teacher that has previously received high ratings; and
73 percent said that the performance evaluation doesn’t actually evaluate performance.
As always, RiShawn Biddle has a crystal clear view of the problem:
When it comes to how we recruit, train, evaluate, and reward teachers, American public education is in a shambles. Near-lifetime employment rules through tenure keep teachers on the job regardless of whether or not they can improve student achievement. Seniority- and degree-based pay scales, along with defined-benefit pensions fail to reward good-to-great teachers for their performance while lavishing benefits on laggards who should have long ago been shown the door. The fact that traditional teacher compensation only benefits instructors after two decades on the job means that talented new hires have to wait years before getting the full fruits of their labors. Meanwhile quality reverse-seniority layoff rules lead to talented younger teachers being kicked to the curb regardless of their success in helping kids succeed while allowing veterans who are not doing well to stay put. Add in the dysfunction and the obsolete practices within traditional districts, the continued defense of failed policies by National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates, and the low quality of school leadership, and the consequence of these policies are magnified, creating conditions that do little to help good and great teachers stay on the job.
What to do? The report makes policy recommendations….
…for more-strategic retention of teachers, several of which touch on hotly debated policy issues. They include paying the best teachers six-figure salaries; requiring principals to set goals for retaining “irreplaceable” teachers; monitoring working conditions; and dismissing teachers who, after remediation, cannot teach as well as the average novice. Together, the report suggests, these strategies could also raise the rigor of the profession.
All this is a way of saying that we need to make schools run the way the rest of the capitalist world is run. Do a good job and you will be rewarded; do a bad job and you will be fired. As things stand now, principals are “at will” employees – meaning they don’t have the ridiculous job protections that most unionized teachers have. But in many places like Los Angeles where I used to teach, principals, like tenured teachers, essentially have a job for life. In fact, the term “dance of the lemons” in LA applies not to teachers but to administrators. Over my 28 year teaching career, I can’t tell you how many times I was told in confidence by my principal that our new assistant principal is a “must place.” For things to improve, principals must be given the ability to hire and fire and be held accountable for their school’s performance. At the same time, seniority and tenure rules that tie principals’ hands must be eliminated.
Lynn Hey in USA Today makes the point quite succinctly –
In other professions, treating all workers equally, regardless of talent, would be inconceivable. Imagine football teams letting star players leave without a fight, then trying to fill the gap with third-stringers.
It’s as simple as that. No one would stand for that on a sports team. Why do we stand for it in our schools? Who would support such idiocy?
The answer to the last question can be found in an op-ed written by NEA Secretary-Treasurer Becky Pringle,
Given the scope of this challenge, a narrow focus on peripheral issues, such as seniority, is a distraction from the hard work at hand.
So much of the problem is summed up here. She considers seniority as peripheral. No, Ms. Pringle, it’s a major part of the problem. In this system, quality doesn’t matter. Teachers-of-the-Year are laid off because they don’t have as much time on the job as their incompetent colleagues. How can anyone in their right mind refer to this as “peripheral?”
NEA members are working through local affiliates to ensure that every teacher is “irreplaceable.”
Of course. The unions see all teachers as equally valuable. This is the point of “The Widget Effect” – one obviously wasted on Ms. Pringle.
We can do it if we work together and put the needs of students first.
The teachers unions want to “put the needs of students first???!!!”
Think about that last quote every time the teachers unions go to bat to keep incompetents, pedophiles and worse in the classroom.
About the author: Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.