Education’s Revolving Door

The last in a series from
Education’s Revolving Door
by Robert A. Frahm
In some of the nation’s most troubled schools, new teachers are leaving their jobs at alarming rates — disrupting classrooms and sparking a debate on how to keep the best young teachers on the job

Illustration by Alvin Chang / CT Mirror

“To me, this is at the center of the future of public education. … It’s one of the most, if not the most, pressing issues we face.”—Jennifer Allen, Hartford Public Schools, Office of Talent Management

The last in a series. The first piece was an inside look at teacher evaluations. The second focused on the challenges to getting top students into the profession.

As the official in charge of hiring new teachers for the Hartford Public Schools, Jennifer Allen knows the satisfaction of landing talented young recruits – and, too often, the disappointment of losing them.

The school system has lost recruits such as 26-year-old science teacher John Zamojski, who was hired last August, only to leave the job after just one semester, frustrated by what he described as a heavy and expanding teaching load.

Zamojski is one of many. Like other high-poverty urban school systems, Hartford struggles with unusually high rates of teacher turnover, losing well over half its new hires within five years.

Turnover is a widespread, longstanding and costly problem. It affects schools in Connecticut and across the nation, resulting in a younger, more mobile and less experienced teaching workforce, according to various research studies.

“To me, this is at the center of the future of public education….It’s one of the most, if not the most, pressing issues we face,” said Allen, head of the school system’s Office of Talent Management, which oversees the hiring, induction and training of new teachers.

Jennifer Allen is in charge of hiring new teachers for Hartford Public Schools.

A study of 1993 college graduates by University of Pennsylvania researcher Richard Ingersoll found that more than 41 percent of those who became teachers had left teaching within five years.

Compared with workers in other occupations, teachers have a relatively high attrition rate, leaving their jobs at about the same rate as police officers and considerably more often that nurses, lawyers and engineers, according to Ingersoll, a leading researcher on the teaching workforce.

“Some schools have far more [attrition] than other schools,” Ingersoll said. Some turnover may be desirable as schools weed out ineffective teachers, but schools are losing promising young teachers, too. In schools with high turnover rates, the cost is considerable, Ingersoll said. “There’s the disruptiveness. There’s the cost of having to recruit and have job fairs and train. Feeding the revolving door… is very expensive.”

The problem is most severe in high-poverty urban and rural schools, with staff turnover as high as 26 percent in a single year at small urban poor schools, Ingersoll reported in a study during the 2000-2001 school year. That figure includes those who took other teaching jobs and those who left the profession entirely.

In Connecticut, state education officials are planning a new study on teacher supply and demand, including the impact of teacher turnover. The last such statewide study was done 14 years ago.

The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future has called turnover a national crisis, warning that “an alarming number of teachers are leaving their schools during their first few years.” Aside from the disruption within schools, the financial cost is steep. In a study of five school districts completed in 2007, the commission reported that costs such as recruiting, hiring and training amount to thousands of dollars for each teacher who leaves. The cost of losing a teacher ranged from $4,366 in one small rural New Mexico district to $17,872 in Chicago, the study said.

In Hartford, Allen has tracked the records of teachers hired over the past six years and found a discouraging rate of attrition, with 61 percent of those hired in 2007-08 no longer working in the district. Of those hired just two years ago, more than 40 percent have left.

Why do they leave?

The reasons vary. Some leave for better pay or family reasons. More common, according to education researchers, is dissatisfaction with working conditions.

Zamojski, the young Hartford science teacher, said he left because of an expanding workload that went “beyond the terms of what I agreed to when I was hired.” At Hartford’s Renzulli Academy, officials adjusted teaching assignments, asking Zamojski and others to take on new courses to accommodate a last-minute decision by the district to add high school classes to the school.

“I was usually [at school] by 7:15 every morning and sometimes would stay until 5 or 6,” Zamojski said. “Most of my free time was spent planning and grading. It was a very heavy workload.”

Later, when he was told his assignment also would include additional courses for the second semester, he decided to resign, he said. He moved back to his hometown of Buffalo, New York, where he is working part-time at a grocery store and taking graduate courses. He said he plans to work in the federal AmeriCorps public service program as a literacy specialist in the Buffalo schools in the fall while he continues to look for a permanent teaching job.

Ruth Lyons, the Renzulli Academy director, described Zamojski as “very smart” and said, “I think if he would have stayed, it would have worked out.” But, she said, “teaching in an urban environment, there are so many extra stresses on new teachers.”

Other educators, too, say poverty, limited resources and other problems common to urban schools often influence teachers to look for jobs elsewhere.

“[Young teachers] come to us, gain experience and then go to a suburban district and make $10,000 to $12,000 more.”

— Ronald Remy
Principal, Blackham School in Bridgeport

“It’s mostly an issue with younger teachers,” said Ronald Remy, principal of Blackham School in Bridgeport, one of the state’s poorest cities. “They come to us, gain experience and then go to a suburban district and make $10,000 to $12,000 more.”

In Hartford, Allen is studying teacher attrition as the subject of her doctoral dissertation at Columbia University’s Teachers College. When teachers leave, she said, “It’s rarely about kids. Sometimes it’s about money, but it’s mostly about working conditions and leadership.”

Poor leadership was the leading reason cited by former teachers from 12 Connecticut schools in a report published in 2008 by the Connecticut Center for School Change, a non-profit school reform organization. The report called for better support to help principals minimize the burden on teachers, including “the sheer number of reform initiatives that shower down on classroom teachers.”

In that study, several of the schools with high attrition rates also had frequent changes of principals while the low-attrition schools had stable leadership, the report said.

One group of teachers has had a particularly high rate of attrition. The highly selective Teach for America (TFA) program enlists talented college graduates to work in the nation’s poorest and most challenging schools, but a substantial number of those teachers leave soon after fulfilling a two-year commitment.

TFA has drawn criticism both for its short training period and its high attrition rate, but the organization recently announced new pilot programs to test a longer training period and to provide more support to help those who continue to teach beyond the two-year requirement.

In Hartford, TFA accounts for less than 4 percent of the workforce. It has had some notable successes, including this year’s city Teacher of the Year, but many TFA teachers leave the system within four or five years, according to figures compiled by Allen. Of 39 TFA recruits hired in Hartford in the 2008-09 school year, for example, only three remain.

Among those who are leaving Hartford is TFA recruit Christopher Hils. After a two-year stint, the 27-year-old University of Connecticut political science graduate is leaving Hartford’s Asian Studies Academy, where he said he felt unprepared and got little support.

“I just didn’t find that I was getting the training I wanted…that made me feel like I was actually impacting my students’ lives in a meaningful way…,” said Hils, who teaches second grade. “A lot of the training we get through the district … is not very adequate to what we actually do in the classroom.”

Although he had a mentor who provided encouragement, the school was adjusting to changes, including a new principal, and there never seemed to be enough time for practical advice, even in routine matters such as how to use classroom materials, he said.

Hils has taken a job at a Newark, New Jersey, charter school, where he said there is a more established program for training and observing young teachers.

“One of the big issues is the issue of voice. How much say do teachers have in the key [school] decisions?”

— Richard Ingersoll
University of Pennsylvania researcher

Nate Snow, executive director of the state TFA chapter, acknowledges that retention has been an issue but is taking steps to encourage more of those recruits to stay in the profession. Connecticut is one of 12 regions TFA has selected to take part in the pilot program to bolster retention.

“This is something we’re going to take on,” said Snow, whose office has hired additional staff members to support TFA teachers who continue beyond the second year.

Of those who finished their two-year commitment last year, Snow said 55 to 60 percent continued teaching in Connecticut schools this year – a figure he would like to increase to at least 70 percent. “What things can we do to make sure they are as successful as possible in their teaching careers?” he said.

Snow’s question may be a key to stemming attrition not just for TFA recruits but for other beginning teachers as well.

So what can be done?

Ingersoll, the University of Pennsylvania researcher, surveyed public school teachers who left their jobs and found that nearly half listed job dissatisfaction as a factor in their decisions.

“One of the big issues,” he said, “is the issue of voice. How much say do teachers have in the key [school] decisions?…Another [issue] is, how much support do we have for the new teachers?” In his research, Ingersoll has said that strong induction programs – including mentoring, common planning time, and reduced course loads – can improve the chances that new teachers will stay in the classroom.

A new report by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching says that better support and training, along with greater opportunities for leadership and advancement, are crucial factors in stemming attrition among a wave of new teachers entering the profession.

No. of teachers in each class who left Hartford Public Schools, by year hired
In the 2008-09 school year, 165 new teachers were hired.
School Year No. teachers who left Percent
2008-2009 35 21.2%
2009-2010 18 10.9%
2010-2011 17 10.3%
2011-2012 12 7.3%
2012-2013 7 4.2%
2013-2014 3 1.8%
In the 2009-10 school year, 132 new teachers were hired.
School Year No. teachers who left Percent
2009-2010 34 25.8%
2010-2011 14 10.6%
2011-2012 15 11.4%
2012-2013 5 3.8%
2013-2014 3 2.3%
In the 2010-11 school year, 180 new teachers were hired.
School Year No. teachers who left Percent
2010-2011 37 20.6%
2011-2012 29 16.1%
2012-2013 15 8.3%
2013-2014 8 4.4%
In the 2011-12 school year, 236 new teachers were hired.
School Year No. teachers who left Percent
2011-2012 49 20.8%
2012-2013 31 13.1%
2013-2014 13 5.5%
In the 2012-13 school year, 311 new teachers were hired.
School Year No. teachers who left Percent
2012-2013 49 15.8%
2013-2014 20 6.4%
Source: Hartford Public Schools – Office of Talent Management

It is “increasingly clear that it’s not money, or a lack of it, that’s causing most teachers to leave,” the report said. “Rather, the primary driver of the exodus of early-career teachers is a lack of administrative and professional support. The problem takes many forms, including the feeling of being isolated from colleagues, scant feedback on performance, poor professional development, and insufficient emotional backing by administrators.”

One former Connecticut school superintendent argues that instead of the examinations and other hurdles faced by beginners, new teachers “need the human touch.”

“For some time, I have thought that giving first-year teachers a full teaching assignment is wrong,” Mark Cohan writes in a new book reflecting on his 37 years in Connecticut public schools, including jobs as superintendent in Bolton and Cromwell and at the Norwich Free Academy. “Rather than teach the standard four or five classes…shouldn’t we ease a first-year teacher into the profession? How about three classes, a list of books and articles to read, and a weekly seminar, dinner or whatever, where the new teachers get together with a couple of outstanding experienced teachers to talk?”

The key, says Hartford’s Allen, “is to keep them engaged and challenged. … How do we help people with high potential have opportunities that make them feel like effective agents of change?”

To stem the exodus, Hartford is strengthening its induction and mentoring programs for beginning teachers. The district also is developing training programs to help young teachers move up in the profession by taking on roles such as instructional coaches, mentors, department heads or teachers-in-residence, Allen said.

Still, for all their efforts, Allen wonders how much schools can really do to keep good teachers, especially for a post-baby-boom generation more willing and likely to change jobs several times over the course of a lifetime.

“Is it something we could be doing better to retain them? Or is it simply that we’re dealing with a different population?” she said. “Is the notion of a career teacher a thing of the past?” ♦

Robert A. Frahm, a former reporter for The Mirror and, before that, The Courant, has written about education for more than 40 years. His numerous writing awards include the nation’s top prize for education reporting from the Education Writers Association in 1983 and 1996 and the 1996 Master Reporter Award from the New England Society of Newspaper Editors. He is a former high school English teacher.

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