What high-turnover schools have in common

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African-American schools on probation with new principals are the top candidates for high teacher turnover, according to an analysis by the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Conducted at Catalyst’srequest, the analysis looked at teacher turnover in the Chicago Public Schools from April 1997 to April 1999. The Consortium found that:

Landing on academic probation added 5 percentage points to a school’s teacher turnover rate.

Having a brand new principal added 3 percentage points to a school’s turnover rate.

Race also had an impact, after controlling for other factors, including student poverty, probation status and declining enrollment. Schools that were over 85 percent mixed minority, African American or Hispanic had higher turnover than did schools that were less than 85 percent minority. African-American schools had an extra 4 percentage points in turnover, and Hispanic or mixed minority schools an extra 3.

School size and the percentage of low-income students had no impact on turnover. The analysis raises a number of questions. For one, were schools with high turnover more likely to land on probation, or did probation cause turnover?

Possibly some of both, local experts say. For one, schools with high turnover may be forced to fill many vacancies with inexperienced teachers, deflating student achievement.

New teachers are barraged with unfamiliar textbooks to read, programs to learn, lesson plans to write—and no idea whether what they try will work, says Kymara Chase of DePaul University’s School Achievement Structure. “Imagine having a teacher like that every year. That’s very detrimental, and in a lot of schools, that’s what’s going on.”

Many school consultants have observed higher turnover in probation schools. “Probation is like the scarlet letter,” says Morris Williamson of the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, which has served as an external partner to schools on probation. “Many people are embarrassed by the label. And many teachers run away from the problem.”

But consultants say they also know of schools where staff remained and rallied to move off probation. Fiske elementary in Woodlawn has an average teacher turnover rate of only 8 percent—about half the district average—even after landing on probation in 1996-97.

The reason, says Principal Clarice Jackson-Berry, is that staff already had a long history together. When she arrived 16 years ago, “Almost everyone was the godmother of somebody else’s child, or they played bridge together or lived on the same block.”

Staff stability has made for closer ties to parents, she says, and after probation hit, she called a family night to rally support. Over 500 parents and community members showed up. “It was one of the most wonderful nights we’ve ever had in the school.” Fiske came off probation at the end of the year.

As for the link between race and turnover, Barbara Sizemore, retired DePaul University education dean, says she has some hunches. New teachers may take whatever job they can find at first and later transfer to schools closer to home, more accessible by public transportation or in safer areas. Another hunch is that teachers may stereotype minority students as less able learners and prefer to teach in integrated schools. A third is that schools on the rough West Side, which seem to have the hardest time filling vacancies, must take whomever they can get. Later those teachers are cleared out, only to reappear in a similar school. “I call them the ‘recycles.’ The system doesn’t ever get rid of them.”