Tackling the teacher dropout rate

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In August 1997, Michelle landed her first teaching job at a West Side Chicago elementary school. “I was ambitious and ready,” she says. “I was fresh out of school. I was totally excited.”

In October, she discovered that if a fist-fight broke out in her classroom and she hit the emergency button, nobody would come. In November, she still had no reading textbooks for her students. By December, she had spent $800 of her own money on classroom materials.

Her parents advised her to think about quitting. “I was crying to my parents almost every day ‘This is insane. There’s no point in me being here.’ “

Michelle plans to quit teaching after her third year, biding time only until she finishes a master’s degree in technology.

Michelle’s early exit is not unusual. Some 30 percent of teachers new to the Chicago Public Schools—although not necessarily new to teaching—leave within the first five years, according to a Catalyst analysis of School Board data. Some depart solely for personal reasons, but many are spurred by the working conditions at their schools. No records are kept on whether they head for other teaching jobs or other professions.

“The private sector would not tolerate that kind of turnover,” insists Barnett Berry of the National com-mission on Teaching and America’s Future. “They would be absolutely mortified if they were losing one out of three.”

But that kind of early turnover is typical in teaching, says Berry. Following the first five years, the attrition rate declines, rising again only at retirement.

High teacher turnover is costly, feeding teacher shortages, wasting resources and disrupting school programs.

With school enrollments rising and teacher shortages persisting in a number of areas—bilingual and special education, and math and science—teacher attrition is attracting both national and local attention. Mentoring for new teachers is on the rise, including in Chicago.

Chicago’s annual loss

Teacher shortages often are blamed on a graying workforce, notes Richard Ingersoll of the University of Georgia. In fact, about twice as many teachers resign each year as retire, he says, referring to studies by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). “The solution is not to recruit new people; the solution is to find out why so many are prematurely leaving.”

Chicago has not calculated its annual attrition rate, but typically, about 6 percent of its teachers—roughly 1,500—are new each year, filling vacated and new positions. That’s in line with a related national statistic, the percentage of public school teachers who leave the profession entirely, which is about 6 percent annually, according to NCES studies.

However, there is an internal teacher turnover problem, too. When teacher transfers within the school system also are counted, the city’s annual turnover rate rises to about 14 percent, according to a Catalyst analysis of two years of recent data (April 1997- April 1999) compiled by the Consortium on Chicago School Research. That turnover rate is typical for urban public schools, according to NCES.

Among Chicago schools, the turnover rate varies dramatically, the Catalyst analysis found. At some schools, it was close to 50 percent.

“Migration has just as negative an impact as attrition,” says Ingersoll. “We can’t ignore it. Some [professions] aren’t really hurt if they lose people. Factories with assembly lines are set up so that anyone can be slotted in. But some settings require cohesion and continuity to operate well.

And schools are one such organization.

No studies have determined at what level turnover becomes a problem, according to Ingersoll. He sees an annual rate of 20 percent as the tipping point.

Over the past two years, 93 Chicago schools lost an average of 20 to 46 percent of their teachers each year, the Consortium found. That tally excludes schools with significant enrollment declines, the seven high schools “reconstituted” for low test scores in 1997 and schools that opened after 1996.

Such turnover can have disastrous consequences for students. Kymara Chase, director of DePaul University’s School Achievement Structure (SAS), offers this example. Suppose most of a school’s 3rd-graders are far below grade level in reading, she says. “The only way to solve that problem is with the 3rd-grade teachers. [Without] a consistent group of 3rd-grade teachers to analyze and solve the problem, how is it going to get done?”

In 1998, Chase analyzed the teaching staff at 23 schools—most of them on probation—that had adopted SAS. She found that 20 percent of classroom teachers were new to those schools.

Some of those schools had a hard time filling vacancies because of the racial balance requirements of the board’s 1980 desegregation consent decree. Under the decree, the racial mix of the faculty at each school should fall within 15 percentage points of the mix citywide, which is 45 percent white and 55 minority, according to the most recently published data.

Some West and South side schools are short on white teachers, Chase notes. In those cases, principals may have to reject a qualified minority candidate and fill a position instead with rotating substitutes. “Some of the students have not had a full-time teacher in two or three years, especially in the primary grades where they’re learning to read,” she reports.

The principal factor

While persistently high turnover typically damages an educational program, an occasional exodus can do some good, experts note.

Sarah Spurlark of the University of Chicago’s Center for School Improvement watched as one new principal cleared out 90 percent of her staff.

“And that was all to the good. People had become complacent about doing nothing.”

The arrival of a new principal often precipitates a jump in staff turnover. The Consortium analysis put a number on it, finding an increase of 3 percentage points in schools with first-year principals. (See story.) Over the last five years, at least 245 Chicago schools have received new principals, according to the Consortium.

“The older staff gets into a routine. A new principal comes in with a new management style and encounters resistance,” notes Morris Williamson of the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL).

In some cases, new principals add to the problem, he says. “One seemed to want to strike fear in teachers that their jobs were on the line if they didn’t get the scores up. In staff development meetings, the principal would be like the warden talking to the inmates. And that didn’t work. Teachers were driven out.”

While stability generally helps an educational program, it can be a problem under certain circumstances. “Sometimes a department may get stuck because they’ve been teaching the same thing for 20 years,” says Fred Frelow of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. “In a given year, you might want a higher turnover to have some new blood in the building.”

To get a blend of fresh ideas and experience, most principals want a mix of veterans, mid-career teachers and brand new teachers, Frelow observes. But if you’re losing 20 to 50 percent of your staff each year, it’s hard to achieve that balance, he says. “You don’t have control of your workforce.”

In schools with veteran principals, the reasons for higher teacher turnover vary widely, local experts say, but two stand out: One, the principal may have introduced a controversial new program—reading programs are the most contentious, some observe. Otherwise, teachers probably are dissatisfied with the leadership.

“I’m frankly surprised that more teachers don’t leave some schools,” says Spurlark. “In some cases, it’s personal loyalty or a missionary zeal for children in a particular neighborhood. If you find 20 percent or more of teachers leaving a school, it’s not just incidental. It bears investigation.”

Among schools with experienced principals—in place three or more years—a total of 42 lost an average of 20 percent or more of their teachers annually, the Consortium found. Again, the tally excludes reconstituted, closing and newly opened schools, and those with significant enrollment declines. (See chart.)

A Catalyst survey of the 1,548 teachers new to CPS last year also points to the principal as the main reason teachers leave. Of the 428 who responded, 16 percent reported they did not intend to return to the same school this fall. The most frequently cited reasons were lack of support from the principal (60 percent), followed by a feeling that the school was poorly run (46 percent) and poor student discipline (46 percent).

A 3rd-grade teacher on the South Side, for instance, reports he was bitten twice by the same student and had to undergo an AIDS test. “‘Why do you keep getting bit?'” the principal demanded. “Like it was my fault,” he says.

“You’ve got to have the kind of leadership that’s encouraging, that’s supportive, that’s inspiring,” says Barbara Sizemore, retired dean of the DePaul University School of Education. “If you don’t, teachers feel abandoned—they feel like they’re out on a limb by themselves, and everyone is trying to cut it off.”

Some experts suspect that working conditions in particular schools may drive teachers away from the profession entirely, with new teachers being the most vulnerable.

“They generalize from a bad first year that ‘This is what teaching is, and it’s not for me,'” explains Barbara Radner of DePaul’s Center for Urban Education. “And anybody who doesn’t feel competent, you begin to question yourself, ‘Maybe” I should get into real estate.’ “

Leader vs. Boss

A fair number of teachers who responded to the CATALYST survey gave their principals perfect marks; 21 percent rated them as providing strong support in every category—instruction, discipline, materials and record keeping.

Second-grade teacher Stephanie Gross had left a school in Indiana for Hibbard elementary in Albany Park. At the end of her first evaluation, she reports, Principal Anthony Jelinek said, “‘Stephanie, What can I do for you? Is there anything that you need?’ Which totally shocked me. I had never heard that before.” Hibbard’s average teacher turnover rate is only 5 percent.

It all comes down to the difference between “leaders” and “bosses,” explains Stuart Greenbaum, now the business school dean at Washington University in St. Louis. He co-founded the Total Quality Schools program at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “A boss is someone who gives direction, and a leader is someone who shares responsibility and provides support.”

In the business world, he adds, research has shown that a top-down management style is not an effective motivator of employees whose work requires judgment. “It stifles initiative and growth on the part of the person being directed.”

Carlos Ponce, the School Board’s new director of Human Resources, agrees that the management style of some principals is driving off teachers. “Who wants to work for a butthead?” he asks.

Once a new computer system is up and running, Ponce anticipates monitoring personnel transactions at each school, including teacher turnover rates. Then, he says, he will be able to ask principals: “Why have you had a day-to-day substitute in an elementary position when we have loads of teachers available? What took you so long to address this need?”

The board is supporting a number of initiatives aimed at improving the system’s principal corps, including required profession-al development workshops, a voluntary year-long mentoring program for new principals, and two programs, LAUNCH and PENCUL, aimed at upgrading the skills of aspiring principals. (See Catalyst, April 1999.)

At schools on probation, principals often get extra help with leadership from a probation manager—usually a former or current principal—and a university or non-profit external partner.

Williamson of NCREL feels he made progress with some principals, moving them from a directive to a collaborative style of leadership, but he fears that in some cases, the improvements won’t stick. At one school, teachers warned him that the principal is “going to go back to his same old ways when NCREL pulls out.”

NCREL worked with probation schools mainly on staff development but has decided to pull out as an probation partner and develop a new leader-ship program for principals instead, Williamson says. “Unless you address the leadership issue, no change will happen; you’re only spinning your wheels.”

Other experts believe that teachers can provide some of the support that new teachers expect from their principals. Strong teacher-to-teacher mentoring can make a principal’s shortcomings “much less catastrophic or at least not a reason to leave,” says Steven Tozer of the University of Illinois at Chicago, which has helped city schools develop a new-teacher mentoring program.

Piloted for the last two years, the program is going citywide this school year and will be “one of the key ways of being able to hold onto our new teachers,” says Ponce. (See story.)

So far, mentoring hasn’t changed the district’s overall attrition rate for first-year hires—a steady 10 to 11 percent for each of the past five years, a Catalyst analysis of school board data found.

As in any profession, turnover is welcome when it weeds out people who are not suited to the work and opens up positions for more qualified candidates.

“But in the public schools, that’s not often what you observe,” Greenbaum says. “There you see people who are leaving because they are alienated, and replaced by people who are not palpably different, who eventually become alienated and turn over again.”