Tag Archives: teachers

How Teacher Turnover Hurt Improvement Efforts in These Minnesota Schools

This is first in a series of blog posts and resources to offer lessons and reflections for school leaders, district officials, and education policymakers using data and stories from the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative. The series is supported by a grant from the McKnight Foundation.

As students come back to school this fall, many will find teachers and principals they’ve never seen before. About 16 percent of teachers leave the profession or change schools every year, and that number is even higher in high-poverty schools, urban schools, and low-performing schools.

How does teacher turnover affect students and schools? The research is not always clear. Several studies in urban districts show a general negative association between turnover and student achievement. One study found negative teacher turnover effects spread even to students with veteran teachers, suggesting turnover can impact schoolwide achievement and morale. But a certain amount of turnover is inevitable, and in some cases, staff changes can improve student scores by exiting ineffective teachers or allowing teachers to take on new leadership roles in schools.

The experience of the Pathway Schools Initiative, a seven-year effort to improve third grade literacy in seven Minnesota elementary schools, sheds further light on how turnover can hurt the momentum of school improvement efforts. With the support of the McKnight Foundation, schools participating in the initiative worked with the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute (UEI) to implement PreK-3rd improvement efforts.

All seven Pathway schools were urban (located in the Twin Cities metropolitan area), relatively low performing, and predominantly low-income. But rates of teacher turnover varied widely between schools and from year to year. The graph below shows the differences in PreK-3rd grade teacher turnover among four participating schools over a two-year period.

Ultimately, schools in the Initiative struggled to make significant progress in improving PreK-3rd grade instruction and literacy outcomes. An independent evaluation conducted by SRI International identified teacher turnover as one of the major challenges, among many, facing schools in their professional development and instructional change efforts. Evaluators also found some cases where newly hired teachers were associated with lower student performance, but results were inconsistent by school and by year.[1] Overall, professional development was a huge component of the initiative, and when large numbers of teachers left, that institutional knowledge and investment left too. As one teacher told evaluators, “We’ve had so much turnover among the staff that we’re reinventing the wheel every year.”

Data collected by SRI International, from SRI 2016-17 Pathway Schools Initiative Annual Report. Note: Data were not available in this time period for every school in the Initiative.

School improvement efforts like the Pathway Schools Initiative, which focused on assessment, instruction, and professional development, need a certain level of stability to succeed. But chronic educator turnover in high-need schools should not be viewed as an inevitable reality. In blogs to come in this series, we’ll continue digging into data and stories from these schools to look at the impacts of teacher and leader turnover and examine potential action steps schools, districts, and states can take to ensure turnover is not a roadblock to school improvement.

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[1] Schmidt, R.A., Chen, W., Torre, D., Woodworth, K., and Golan, S. (2017, April). The Role of Student and School Characteristics in Predicting Early Literacy Gains. Poster Presentation at the annual conference of the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), Austin, TX, and Pathway Schools Initiative Phase 1 Case Study

Three Takeaways from the Arizona Correctional Educators’ Symposium

Last week, I spent a day with hundreds of teachers who work in Arizona’s prisons, jails, and juvenile justice facilities talking about the ways they can best support their students and continue to improve the ways that their systems operate. After presenting at the Arizona Correctional Educators’ Symposium, an annual convening and professional development event for teachers in secure schools from across the state, I found myself thinking about three key takeaways:

As in all education systems, needlessly complex bureaucracy interferes with effective teaching

Like conventional public education, most correctional education is managed by state agencies and sometimes delegated or contracted to other providers. Correctional education, however, has no consistent governance framework. Where most states have a state office of education that oversees local education agencies (LEAs), education in secure facilities is managed in nearly every conceivable way. For example, a state justice agency might have its own education division that is a complete system unto itself. Or the justice agency might have a state statutory obligation to delegate the education programming to an LEA. Or the state may determine that the geographic school district is obligated to provide education services to all secure facilities within its boundaries.

The most complicated systems to navigate are the ones in which kids cross agency lines as they move through the adjudication process. Arizona is one of those states. As kids move from arrest to confinement to reentry, they’ll likely attend several different schools managed by different agencies or offices. This means that education programming is often imperfectly aligned over the long term and that kids risk missing essential skills instruction or losing out on accrued credit hours. For teachers, they’re doing their best to meet the needs of the kids who show up each day in their classrooms, but they often don’t know who that will be (or how long they’ll stay).

The people who work in these schools are hungry for relevant professional development

I lost track of how many times a teacher told me how grateful they were to have the opportunity to get professional development from people who understand the constraints that they work within. These aren’t the kinds of restrictions that you might assume: teachers are far more frustrated by the loss of instructional time from frequent interruptions than they are about student misbehavior.

Today, most education training is focused on conventional community-based schools, and it doesn’t feel relevant for teachers in secure facilities. And most of the training that’s designed with them in mind is safety and compliance-focused; there’s very little offered to help them improve their practice as educators.

Teachers everywhere do the best they can in the circumstances that they’re in

I am always so incredibly impressed with the commitment and resilience of teachers who work in justice facilities. I spoke with a group over lunch who laughed that the response “But that doesn’t make sense!” should be the unofficial guiding theme of the policies that regulate their work. For example, Dante’s The Inferno is banned in school libraries, but the collective work of The Divine Comedy isn’t; Teachers hold statutory special education responsibilities under federal law for students disabilities but often only find out about a change in a student’s education program after a student has been moved out of their classroom; and teachers run their classrooms at the mercy of the secure care staff who have full discretion to pull students out of class or even to close school for the entire day.

But you know what I never heard at the symposium? I never heard a group of teachers complain about their students. Teachers that I talked to hold so much hope and optimism for the potential of their students, and despite many institutional incentives to become complacent, they still bring their best effort to their classrooms every day.

The First BLS Study of Labor Productivity in K-12 Education & Why It’s Important

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Collecting macroeconomic data in the education sector is currently a dreadful experience.

For example, my team and I recently calculated the number of traditional, charter, and private schools opened and closed in four major U.S. cities during a specific period of time to show whether poor-performing schools are closing and new schools are opening to serve students. It was oddly difficult to know with certainty how many schools opened and closed in each city, to say nothing of gathering more sophisticated data such as annual expansions and contractions in enrollment and the labor force.

So I was thrilled to see the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) aiming their analytic heft at the education sector with a report released last month entitled “Labor productivity growth in elementary and secondary school services: 1989–2012.” According to the report, “Labor productivity is a statistical measure that relates an industry’s output of services to the quantity of labor required to produce those services.” In other words, it answers the question of whether the juice is worth the squeeze.

In this case, we’re talking about teachers and other school employees in K-12 public and private schools, such as librarians, guidance counselors, administrators, and student support staff. Inputs are measured using a combination of number of full-time equivalent employees and cost from salaries and benefits. Outputs are measured using a combination of enrollment (volume) and NAEP scores (quality).

Productivity data are important because they tell us how efficiently we are delivering education services. When combined with data on demographic shifts and practice and policy reforms, especially related to teacher preparation and hiring, we can see what’s working and at what expense.

The biggest finding is that even though inputs and outputs have both increased steadily, labor productivity has declined by 0.2 percent per year, on average, since 1989. What you see in the chart above is that productivity declines when inputs score higher on the index than outputs.

The report provokes many questions for me. Does the decline in productivity map to major education policies at the federal or state level? What’s the influence of broader economic trends on the K-12 labor force? Why didn’t  private schools shrink their workforce at a rate commensurate to their enrollment decline?

The findings are interesting, and I plan to keep digging into them, but the more important message from the BLS is that they’re starting to aim their analytic expertise to the education sector, which they’ve all but ignored to this point. The report states, “The new measures reflect BLS commitment to expand its coverage of service industries, including those industries for which developing reliable series presents a significant challenge.”

Macroeconomic data like these are becoming more and more important for the U.S. education sector, especially in cities where charter school market share is on the rise, private schools educate a significant proportion of students, and districts enter into charter-like contracts with their schools. Understanding the market and labor dynamics within a city’s schools is critical to understanding what’s working, what regulations need to be in place, and which areas to target for improvement.

The private sector benefits from robust government reporting such as the BLS’s Business Employment Dynamics and U.S. Census Bureau’s Business Dynamics Statistics programs which collect, organize, and analyze critical market dynamic data. Education sector leaders will need similar data sets in order to make informed decisions. To do that, the BLS and other government agencies will have to collect and report data that can be further disaggregated by school type (district, charter, private, homeschool) and location (city, metropolitan statistical area, state).

If the labor productivity report is any indicator, they’re on the right path.

Hillary Clinton’s Missed Opportunity

Last week, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton received an endorsement from the National Education Association. Before that, she met with the NEA’s board of directors, and blogger Mike Antonucci posted Clinton’s responses during the meeting. Clinton talked about ESEA reauthorization, testing, standards, and college affordability. But what Clinton chose not to talk about in a meeting with a room full of teachers is just as instructive as what she did talk about.

Seeking the support of the nation’s largest teachers union would have been a great time for Clinton to discuss her plans for improving the teaching profession, but she declined the opportunity. The closest Clinton got to discussing how she views the profession happened when she touted her New College Compact proposal—a college tuition assistance program. While talking about the proposal, according to Antonucci, Clinton said, “If you do public service, and I consider teaching public service, you will have a lot of debt forgiven depending on how many years you serve as a public school teacher.”

This framing of the teaching profession contrasts with the Obama Administration’s work, which has influenced states and districts, and by extension, the general public, to reconsider teaching as less of a public service and more of a true profession. Through Race to the Top, ESEA waivers, TIF and other programs, the Obama Administration set forth an ambitious path forward to reshape the teaching profession. Under these policies, teachers are held accountable for student achievement and paid handsomely when they lead students to academic success and take on leadership roles that improve overall school performance.

As many districts, big and urban to small and rural, struggle to fill teacher vacancies, treating teaching like a charity role is not the kind of policy that is going to attract and retain the professionals needed in public education. To be sure, Clinton has many more months to unveil her full education policy platform. Her remarks to the NEA’s board of directors were just the tip of the iceberg, but hopefully Clinton will not stay silent on pressing teacher policy issues for much longer.