The cost of (not) retaining teachers

This NPR article is an interview with Richard Ingersoll from the University of Pennsylvania (the Ivy League school, not the Big 10ish school).

Forever, there has been the (generally correct) rule of thumb that about 50% of teachers leave the profession within 5 years.  When we always had more wide-eyed graduates to take their place, no one really cared.  We are getting very close to a time when we are going to have to care, because there are no where near enough teachers coming up to replace the soon-to-be big retirement coming up.


Why do teachers leave?  There are lots of reasons, and those reasons depend on the school and district you examine.  Poor salary and benefits are the issue in some places.  A terrible culture (as in teachers not helping each other) is another and poor leadership (administrators not helping teachers) is a big one.  Some people get into the job and realize it isn’t easy, or they lack the skills to be effective.  Student discipline is another big issue.  Some schools are simply not good at it, and that easily drives teachers away because it not only interferes with their effectiveness, but also becomes a very quick psychological drain.  In some cases, a lack of support and mentorship is a quick way to lose any talent.

Even among the body of teachers still working, there are some who really don’t belong, but they are there because there really are no other teachers out there.  I’ve argued before that this is similar to what happens on sports teams when a team won’t get rid of a vastly under-performing player.  The team knows they are stuck with a bad player, but at the time, there is no one better available.  This is especially true in districts that have a hard time holding on to talent, and are fortunate to have a certified warm body (read:  inner city and rural areas, for the most part).  Ironically, former NFL quarterback Fran Tarkenton wrote a piece in 2011 for the Wall Street Journal blasting teacher tenure because tenure wouldn’t work in the NFL.  It is pretty ignorant of not only education, but of his own profession.  He is correct:  sports teams shouldn’t be run like schools, just as school shouldn’t be run like sports teams.

Most alarmingly, Professor Ingersoll notes that the teachers that seem to be the most affected are math teachers.  At our school, the math department is very much a depressing place to be these days, and there is a lot of talk about leaving teaching or looking for a better school (these are folks making near six or six figures … so to talk like that means things are pretty bad).  They are bad.  In their words, they go into their classes, and now teach to a test that they don’t think helps kids, and they see their teaching as more and more ineffective.  I don’t care if you are making a lot of money, at some point, if you think you are hurting kids or are just not being successful because of outside rules imposed on you, at some point it gets very hard to put on the smile and show a lot of energy.  So I can see that happening in front of my eyes.  For as rough as things are in science, we have not seen the worst of it yet because NGSS is still a few years away (and given that far fewer states have implemented NGSS, it may never come to full fruition).


I draw this point:  There have been concerns (I don’t think well studied yet), that fewer and fewer scholastic athletes are going into football because of the risk of severe injury.  One day, maybe 15-20 years from now, the NFL may be looking at a massive shortage of talent.  There will be people to play, but the number of skilled athletes who chose soccer or baseball or basketball will make high talent athletes more valuable.  Will the NFL then start offering guaranteed contracts to attract that talent away from other sports?  Just as tenure once saved teaching, it may one day save the NFL.


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