“I started teaching in a charter school in Taylor. I showed up and they said, ‘Here’s a curriculum,’ and they handed me a USB (drive) and a pile of books and said, ‘Teach this,’ and you’re kind of left alone. You’re almost creating your own curriculum, and as a 23 year old, I didn’t have the intellectual capacity to do a perfect lesson yet.”
Teachers drop out at a higher rate than their students.
An estimated 10 percent leave the profession in their first year; between 30 and 40 percent flee the classroom within four years, about the time it takes for teachers to attain a journeyman level of skill at their job.
Teacher churn, built into Michigan’s education system, is a disservice to teachers and a calamity to students, an estimated one of six of whom are taught for at least part of the day by a teacher with one year or less of experience. Those young teachers often are eager and passionate, but don’t yet have the skills to maximize student learning.
“We lose so many good teachers because they sense that it’s not worth it,” said Susan Melnick, assistant to the chair of teacher education at Michigan State University’s School of Education. “How long is it going to take before we realize we are throwing away generations of kids?”
Younger and teaching fewer years
“There was no preparation for classroom management. I was totally unprepared for that. I was like two days ahead of the kids at all times. It’s a sink or swim profession. If you survive the first year, you can keep going. But the first year … it’s just grueling.”
In 1987-88, the most common amount of experience for U.S. teachers was 15 years, according to the U.S Department of Education; twenty years later, it was one year.
The state does not track the percent of educators who drop out of public schools. But it does record the longevity and age of teachers, which serve as proxies for the scope of teacher churn.
That data indicates that about one in eight teachers have less than five years’ experience in their school. There are almost as many teachers with one year or less experience in their current school as teachers with more than 20 years’ experience.
The percentage of U.S. teachers under the age of 30 doubled in just five years, from 2006 to 2011. Those young teachers are dropping out at a faster rate than in the past, with one in ten educators with 1-3 years of experience leaving the classroom every year.
A study by the National Council on Teaching and America’s Future found that even though teacher churn stunts student learning, states haven’t addressed the problem.
“Even as the attrition rate of new teachers steadily increases,” the study concluded, “the country continues to pursue industrial-era recruitment practices that place under-prepared, inexperienced individuals alone in the classroom – often in the most challenging schools and classrooms.”
That troubling trend appears to be occurring in Michigan. A Bridge Magazine analysis found that high-poverty schools are more than twice as likely to have inexperienced teachers than wealthy, suburban schools. The result: the kids who are most in need of experienced teachers are the least likely to get them.
Less experience, less learning
“You’re 22 or 23, you’ve got 150-plus students (in high school), and I’m getting about 20 minutes of feedback every three or four months. There’s no support, you’re woefully unprepared, and you’re totally isolated. You’re trying to put these lesson plans together at 10 o’clock at night, and you have to be up at 5 getting prepped. You’re making this curriculum up as you’re going it alone.”
Teacher turnover hurts student learning, according to a study conducted in part by University of Michigan assistant professor Matthew Ronfeldt.
“There’s fairly substantial empirical evidence that you need to get teachers past those first five years for them to be as effective as they can be,” Ronfeldt said. “They leave before they get their feet under them. My sense is that teaching is less a lifetime career choice than it used to be.”
It’s almost as if young teachers have a planned obsolescence in a system of training, hiring and quitting that’s been followed for a century.
“We designed it to be easy entry, easy exit,” said Deborah Ball, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education. “Churn is a big problem because we have so many inexperienced teachers leading classrooms.”
Why do they leave?
“Most years I’ve taught, I’ve not taught the same lesson twice in the same day. So, I have multiple preps (lessons to prepare daily), three or four preps, then I grade homework and prepare the next day. Some days, you can’t even move, you just stay in the desk. Some days you go home and your brain’s fried but you have work to do. I have fantasized about being fired and working as a barista.”
An estimated 40 percent of teachers spend as much or more time training to be a teacher than being a teacher. After years of education and, for many of them, tens of thousands of student loan debt, why do they leave?
Teaching often is a high-stress job, particularly for young teachers trying to figure out how to manage a classroom – something most are expected to learn on the job.
That can be a tough transition for 23-year-olds who have less on-the-job experience than plumbers need to get a license.
“They can have all the pedagogy in the world, and if they don’t have classroom management skills, a room of middle schoolers will eat them alive,” said Kevin Miller, superintendent of Croswell-Lexington Public Schools.
Meanwhile, teachers are bombarded with negative stereotypes, from “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach,” to being the scapegoats for low student achievement, even though studies show that poverty and home life have a bigger impact.
“Even if you put a very prepared teacher in a classroom,” said Avner Segall, acting chair of teacher education at MSU, “if everything around them says that society does not value them, they will leave.”
What can be done?
“Usually, the stuff I’ve picked up, I’ve slipped in and seen a good teacher for 15 minutes. I wish I had time to sit down with those teachers who had been doing this for 25 years and ask them what to do. I have this student with this problem, how do I help them? How do I bring in their parents? But I have classes and they’ve got Honors English. No one has time.”
A teacher retention program in Hillsborough County, Fla. (home of Tampa and St. Petersburg) resulted in a massive reduction in teacher turnover. First-year teacher drop outs fell from 28 percent to 14 percent to 5 percent in three years.
In the program, rookie teachers get tips on classroom management and lesson planning from intensive, regular mentoring from veteran teachers. Student test scores are on the rise, and the achievement gap between white and minority students is shrinking.
Hillsborough provides a model for reducing teacher churn, but not the money. The Florida program is part of a massive education reform effort bankrolled by a $200 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. A billionaire isn’t likely to swoop in and help Escanaba.
So what can Michigan do?
“If you’re smart and ambitious and there are other opportunities out there, you think, I’m glad I did this, but there are other ways to be involved in education.”
Education majors need earlier exposure to real classrooms, so budding teachers can opt out of the program before spending four years and perhaps $100,000 on an education degree. Numerous principals and superintendents interviewed by Bridge said districts hire teachers straight out of college and then have to “teach them to teach” – a reference to classroom management. Most college programs already expose students to K-12 classes before student teaching, but public school educators encourage even more.
Co-teaching with a veteran teacher for a year or two would help, as well. Ball is an advocate of a medical-intern model for education, in which new teachers aren’t given their own classrooms immediately. “I think it’s appalling that we put teachers in classrooms before they’re ready,” Ball said.
Co-teaching or intensive mentoring would be costly. But some savings would occur as schools spend less on new-teacher training. There is also a cost that is harder to quantify, but critical to consider: Students who learn less because of inexperienced teachers and high turnover means fewer students who are ready for college and careers.