Thomas R. Rosebrough, Ph.D., Executive Dean, College of Education and Human Studies & University Professor of Education
November 5, 2002 - Each election year education is always at the top of most candidates’ campaign platforms. What should we look for as promises are made about improving our schools? What values are vital?
We are all familiar with the African expression: it takes a village to raise a child. How often do we think of our children’s schools as villages or communities? Looking at schools for their quality as learning communities is a very good place to begin as we seek to improve education in our state and in Jackson-Madison County. Just what is a good school-community and what are the implications when a quality school environment is not achieved?
Here are some indicators of quality to look for in a vibrant learning community:
One implication of not achieving real community in a school is low student achievement. And, one piece of evidence related to low achievement and weak educational communities is teacher turnover. No variable is more vital to student success than good teaching. It is difficult for a school community to sustain a vital learning environment when it loses significant numbers of its teaching force each year. We may have read or heard that America has a teacher shortage. Actually, we have an adequate supply to meet the demand. The problem we have is in the area of teacher retention.
For the 1999-2000 school year, American schools hired 534,861 teachers but lost more than they employed. By the end of that year, 539,861 teachers had left their classrooms. This figure includes veteran teachers retiring, teachers changing schools or systems, and teachers leaving the profession. Baby boomer teachers are retiring in record numbers, but they do not account for this high rate of attrition. The number of teachers leaving the classroom for non-retirement reasons is about three for every one retirement.
It is the high non-retirement attrition rates that are fueling the teacher shortage. In Tennessee, the early 1990’s saw 95% of first year teachers staying for another year; by the late 90’s only 84% returned. A whopping 42% of young teachers leave the profession within their first 5 years in Tennessee—a figure that is similar at the national level. Not surprisingly, it is the lowest income students who suffer most from high staff turnover. Many schools with high percentages of low-income students are consistently staffed with higher numbers of underprepared teachers due, among other reasons, to the flight of the best qualified teachers. Research shows that children who had the least effective teachers three years in a row posted achievement gains that were 54% lower than students who had effective teachers.
Why is all of this happening? The supply of new, well-prepared teachers has been growing and more than adequate to meet demand. Plus, since the mid-1980’s, reformers within the teacher colleges have set higher standards for entry and advancement, much as was done for medicine at the beginning of the last century.
The quality of the product is better and quantity of supply is adequate—if, we are able to keep our teachers in the classroom. The shortages that exist are related to the scarcity of people willing to work at the salaries and under the working conditions offered in specific locations. Wages are at least as important to teachers in their decision to quit teaching as they are to workers in other occupations. However, national survey data show that teachers’ motivation to remain in teaching relates more strongly to their working conditions—to their school community.
Every school should have a certain flow, a positive sense of community among families, students, teachers, and staff. High teacher turnover diminishes coherent community. Think of the state of professional sports today with free agency and salary caps—they have scrambled teams each year to where we often do not recognize them. It is difficult to feel loyalty to them. It is the same way in schools with high turnover each year.
Factors like the support of a strong principal, adequate teaching resources, condition of the building, support of parents, and freedom to make curriculum decisions are working conditions that matter. The latter factor, decision-making ability for teachers, is being continuously eroded even as accountability for teachers is being raised. It may sound fair to hold teachers strictly accountable for how well their students do on an achievement test, but it actually can be very unreasonable. While no one questions the value of a results- or achievement-oriented school, we must understand that teachers do not have control over many of the variables that affect achievement: curriculum, class size, socioeconomic level of students’ family, family values, and more. If we value a sense of community in our schools, if we want our schools staffed with the best teachers, if we want our children to achieve their potential, then we should pay attention to these factors and the political leaders who will encourage and support them.
This article appeared in the November 3 edition of The Jackson Sun