Jumping the ship

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Gregory Elementary Principal Donella Carter looks at a “data wall,” where teachers track homework completion, test scores and other statistics. Carter says she works to retain her teachers by empowering them and giving them leadership roles. [Photo by Lucio Villa]

Photo by Lucio Villa

Gregory Elementary Principal Donella Carter looks at a “data wall,” where teachers track homework completion, test scores and other statistics. Carter says she works to retain her teachers by empowering them and giving them leadership roles. [Photo by Lucio Villa]

Call it the great migration.

Every year, on average, 18 percent of Chicago teachers leave their schools. Some are fired or laid off. Some take a job in another CPS school or, increasingly, in another district. Some abandon teaching altogether. 

Though teacher turnover in CPS remains higher than the national average, the good news is that it has decreased slightly in recent years. That’s likely because more teachers—like all workers—clung to their jobs during the recession. Nationally, about 15 percent of teachers leave the profession each year or go to a new school, according to the U. S. Department of Education’s 2008-2009 Teacher Attrition and Mobility survey, the most recent available. Cities, suburban and rural districts tend to lose about the same percentage of teachers, according to the survey. 

The price of turnover is high. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, which looked at several school districts nationwide, estimates that CPS spends $17,872 to fill each vacancy and recruit, interview and provide induction for new teachers. The price tag to fill about 4,000 vacancies between 2011 and 2012: $71.5 million.

Teacher turnover is highest in schools that are predominantly black and low-income: An average of 23 percent of teachers from these schools left between 2011 and 2012, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of Illinois State Board of Education teacher service records. Integrated schools and those that enroll more white and middle-class children retained the most teachers. 

What’s more, schools with a student population that is mostly black or Latino and low-income tend to have high turnover year after year. Between 2008 and 2012, 132 schools—about one in five of all CPS schools, and more than one in three of poor, predominantly minority schools—had to replace more than half their teachers.

Research on the importance of teacher retention and student learning has been mixed. But a newer study found convincing evidence of a correlation between high teacher turnover and stagnant achievement. When controlling for other factors, students in schools with high turnover have significantly lower test scores in language arts and math compared to children in schools with low turnover, according to the 2013 study.

“The harm is more pronounced in lower-performing schools that serve black students,” says Matthew Ronfeldt, assistant professor of educational studies at the University of Michigan and author of the study, which was published in the American Educational Research Journal. “We don’t know exactly why this is, but it is in the very schools with the highest turnover that the harmful effects are most pronounced.”

Barbara Radner, the director of the Center for Urban Education at DePaul University, points out that keeping teachers is not just about what happens inside the classroom. “Teachers build relationships in and outside of the building,” she says. “The connectivity adds an intangible value.”

Jennifer Phares reluctantly made the most common move: She went to another CPS school. About 40 percent of CPS teachers who leave their schools end up elsewhere in the district.

By all the evidence, Phares is a good teacher. She is National Board certified and, in 2009, she won a Golden Apple teaching award. Last year, 86 percent of her third-graders met standards in math and 93 percent in reading. 

Phares started her career at Bright Elementary, a school in South Deering on the Far Southeast Side where all the children come from poor households. Teacher turnover at Bright was dramatic, so much so that Phares almost didn’t bother to learn the names of new teachers. Most were young and inexperienced, and were quickly overwhelmed by the challenges of the environment.

At one point, Phares was that young, inexperienced teacher—and felt the weight of it. She laughs and says that during her first year, she only taught reading because she couldn’t figure out how to get through the rest of the curriculum. 

Her principal, for better or worse, didn’t bother her much. Phares recalls that she could have used more support, but she also didn’t feel a ton of pressure from a principal looking over her shoulder. She had a small class, only 24 students, and that helped keep the workload manageable. Phares shut the classroom door and tried her best. “The kids had nothing,” she recalls. “That time in our classroom was ours. We were in our own little bubble.”

She grew to love the students and their families, who warmed up to her once they saw that she wasn’t leaving. When she passed by moms and dads on her way to work, they waved to her. 

Phares didn’t see herself as another teacher who would quickly take off. But two years ago, she did. And she left for a reason that studies show is typical of why teachers leave schools like Bright: Most new teachers are white and middle-class and live far from poor black and Latino neighborhoods. When Phares had a baby, she wanted to work closer to her home in Lincoln Park. 

At just about the same time, Prescott, on the west end of Lincoln Park, was undergoing some major changes. Few families in the neighborhood sent their children to Prescott. But a new principal had come in and saved Prescott from being closed. He replaced almost the entire staff as he tried to improve the school. Phares became part of the transition.

Phares says she loves and misses the children at Bright. But she admits that some things are easier at Prescott. The parents can be more involved. The students are more prepared.

“These kids, for the most part, have a safe place to go to at night,” Phares says, looking at her wily class of third-graders. 

She also loves that Prescott is diverse. Children of all races mix and learn together, and Phares says they do not worry about differences. 

A small but growing number of teachers leave CPS for suburban schools. In 2005, Catalyst found that 1 percent did between 1999 and 2003. Then, between 2008 and 2012, that figure rose to about 4 percent.

Though she felt like a traitor, Cheryl Filipek eventually decided to make that move. 

Filipek was the band teacher at Lincoln Park High School for seven years before accepting a job at Niles North in solidly middle-class Skokie. In the end, the opportunity to work in a school with abundant resources convinced her to take the job. One example: Niles students had Google Chromebooks, while CPS teachers and students often relied on outdated textbooks. 

Filipek also loves the ability to get new instruments and take her band students to high-level competitions. “I couldn’t dream of doing the things I do here with my students from Chicago,” she says, noting that several former CPS employees work at Niles North.

Support from the administration has also been impressive. Filipek says she is observed eight times a year, compared to just once or twice a year in CPS. “This allows me to grow as a teacher,” Filipek explains. In areas where she wants to improve, she can take courses for free. “I find myself wanting to be a better teacher.” 

There’s also less isolation. Not only are Niles parents more involved, but if a student has problems, a team of social workers is on hand. 

“The biggest difference about working here is that I wasn’t called a bitch [once] all year,” Filipek says. “A student might roll their eyes at me, but they wouldn’t dream of calling me a bitch.”

CPS has never had a strong, districtwide program to retain teachers. Yet officials point to investments in initiatives like the New Teachers Center, which helps principals work with new teachers. Some teacher training programs, like the Academy for Urban School Leadership and Teach for America, offer their alumni support after they are placed in schools.

At individual schools, principals use their own strategies to keep teachers from leaving. When Donella Carter became principal at Gregory Elementary 13 years ago, she pushed out some teachers who did not meet her high expectations. But now that she has a faculty that she feels is on board with her goals, she wants to retain them. 

Carter gives teachers the chance to be leaders and mentors, encouraging them to participate in committees and make changes at the school. As Gregory has improved—the school earned the highest CPS rating this year—Carter sees teachers taking pride in their work. 

Carter says she makes teachers create an academic improvement plan for each child. If that plan doesn’t work, she has them develop a plan B.

Teachers like to work at a place where they feel they are effective, Carter says. “They know it is not just Mrs. Carter that is doing it. It is a team effort.”

Some educators, however, worry that turnover will worsen as test scores become a significant part of teacher evaluation. 

Teachers feel a lot of pressure regarding test scores, yet so many factors affect scores that teachers say they don’t have complete control over whether their students do well, says Carol Caref, research consultant for the Chicago Teachers Union. 

Caref says teachers are put in the untenable position of having their job threatened if they can’t raise students’ scores quickly. If a teacher receives an “unsatisfactory” rating, for instance, he or she has just 90 days to bring the rating up two levels to “proficient” to avoid being fired. 

One teacher who is on an evaluation committee at his school says that their network chief is questioning principals who gave teachers high ratings even though their students’ scores haven’t improved. This position is particularly disturbing, he says, because it “will push the best teachers away from the hardest to serve.”

Alfred Tatum, dean of the School of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says that the emphasis on testing and compliance squeezes out the power of teaching. 

Tatum started a leadership academy program for black male high school juniors in which they tutor fourth-grade boys. He hopes that some of these young men will see that they can make an impact and consider going into education.

Under Tatum, students in the School of Education complete service projects before they begin student teaching. Tatum’s hypothesis is that if they experience changing a child’s life, they will keep that memory as they experience the drudgery and challenges of teaching.  

“You have to ignite that fire in them, and you have to keep it lit,” says Tatum.

Tell us what you think. Leave a comment below, or email karp@catalyst-chicago.org.