The Michigan children most in need of experienced teachers are the students least likely to get them.
A Bridge analysis of state data found that inexperienced teachers appear to be clustered in Michigan’s poorest schools. The students in those classrooms will, on average, learn less than their suburban peers taught by more experienced teachers, widening the already yawning achievement gap between Michigan’s academic haves and have-nots.
The finding is one of the most troubling in a Bridge investigation of Michigan’s teacher training system, and raises questions about what can be done to attract and retain experienced teachers in high-poverty schools.
“We’re seeing a widening gap in socioeconomic status among students,” said Jane Zehnder-Merrell, director of Kids Count for the Michigan League for Public Policy. “Education is such a key mechanism for giving kids opportunities. But if our schools are reinforcing economic disadvantage, we’re doing a disservice to students, to their communities, and eventually to the economy of the state.”
Revolving door in the classroom
Bridge’s analysis is based on state data tracking the number of years teachers have worked in their current schools. While it is an inexact measure of total years’ experience, longevity offers a glimpse at the turnover, and likely younger age, of teachers in urban schools.
Benjamin Briere, as an example, started his career at a high-poverty school in Taylor. After one year, he moved to teach high school in Birmingham, one of the most affluent communities in the state.
“I was only there a year, but in that time I saw many new hires and I saw several people leave,” Briere said. “They treated us well – they did a lot of professional development for the staff. I think they had to do these things because the staff was so young and transitory.” (Read Brier's story.)
Eric and Kristen Wideen followed similar paths. Both started their teaching careers at a charter school in high-poverty Inkster. They left within a few years, and now both teach in more middle-class Windsor. (Read their story.)
They are three examples of how high teacher turnover leads to a revolving door of young educators in the state’s classrooms. That revolving door spins faster in schools in poor communities, according to data from the Michigan Department of Education detailing the percent of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, and the longevity of teachers by district.
In the Inkster public schools, for example, 83 percent of students qualified for free and reduced lunch last year, while two out of three teachers had taught in the district for less than five years. The Inkster district was dissolved this summer by Gov. Rick Snyder in the wake of a $15 million deficit .
By contrast, high-achieving Northville Public Schools had 6 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, and 12 percent of teachers who’d worked in the district less than five years.
At Three Oaks Public School Academy in Muskegon, 99 percent of students qualified for free and reduced lunch, and 96 percent of teachers had taught in the school for four years or less.
Overall, Bridge’s analysis of state data found:
Among the quarter of schools serving Michigan’s poorest children (based on percent of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch), 42 percent of teachers have less than five years of experience in the school. That compares to 25 percent in the half of schools serving the wealthiest children.
Charter schools, which are concentrated in high-poverty communities, are more than five times more likely to employ young and transitory teachers than traditional school districts. Among the state’s charters, 53 percent of teachers have one year of experience or less at the school, compared to 9 percent at traditional districts; charter teachers are more than three times more likely to be below the age of 30.
New teachers, old problems
State data on longevity tracks the number of years a teacher has worked in a district or charter school, not the total years a teacher has been teaching; a teacher fresh out of college and a veteran teacher switching into the district would each start with a longevity of zero in the state recording system.
Studies conducted around the country find that not only do high-poverty schools have high teacher turnover, but those teachers tend to be young, and to have performed worse on college entrance exams and teaching licensing exams.
Why is the experience of teachers a potential problem? Because studies show that young teachers, like professionals in most careers, take a few years to learn the ropes.
One study followed science teachers for their first five years teaching, and found a massive increase in student test scores as the teachers gained more experience. “Students of beginning teachers will not achieve at the same levels as students with more experienced teachers,” the authors of the study wrote.
The young teachers who take jobs leading classrooms in high-poverty schools are more likely to leave the profession than their peers who start out in suburban districts – spinning the revolving door even faster.
“All of us recognize that some sort of experience in a job gives you more competency,” said Zehnder-Merrell. “When you have half your teachers who are young, I don’t care how competent you are in your subject, you’re not going to have the skills to teach effectively.”
The experience gap is just part of a systemic problem in teacher preparation, said Punita Thurman of the Detroit-based Skillman Foundation.
“There’s an experience level that’s important to build on, (but) I’ve seen terrific teachers who have two years of experience,” Thurman said. “A lot of it has to do with the training they had before they came to the school and the support they have once they are there.
“It’s a complex problem,” Thurman said. “The bar for entry (to the profession) is uneven. It’s not necessarily clear that our licensing assures that teachers are (ready) to practice.”
Thurman advocates a holistic approach to teacher training reform, part of which could be an honest appraisal of why high-poverty schools can’t attract and keep veteran teachers.
“A teacher has a chance to teach in a suburban community with resources and community support, why wouldn’t they take that over a position in a community where the school is likely to be disbanded, and looked at constantly as the reason for student failure?” Zehnder-Merrell said. “We’ve set teachers up in these low-income communities to be the fall guys. It’s really discouraging. How do you get kids past these barriers?”