Good teachers too easily lost

Published Aug. 21, 2012

A great teacher can have a huge effect on a child's life. So, unfortunately, can a bad teacher.

But in education, job performance has virtually nothing to do with opportunities for advancement. Teachers who are consistently successful with students are not given leadership roles that would allow them to reach students beyond their own classrooms, and if they don't have enough seniority, they can be let go without anyone seeming to care come layoff time. This is enormously frustrating.

I've taught for 11 years at the same high-poverty elementary school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. My fourth- and fifth-grade students arrive in my classroom with varying degrees of preparedness, but they leave with a strong set of skills and a desire to continue learning. Both their intellectual curiosity going forward and their test scores reflect what they get from my class.

I'm just one among many hardworking, high-achieving teachers. But we are at risk. A recent study by the educational nonprofit organization TNTP found that each year urban school districts are losing high-achieving teachers because they make little effort to retain them, or to push out the low achievers.

The report, "The Irreplaceables: Understanding the Real Retention Crisis in America's Urban Schools," estimates that the nation's 50 largest school districts lose about 10,000 excellent teachers a year. Those teachers are extremely difficult to replace. The report estimates that it takes 11 hires by a district to yield one truly great teacher, and so it strongly behooves schools to make sure their best teachers stay.

That's often the opposite of what school districts do. In fact, TNTP found that high performance in the classroom actually may slightly lessen a teacher's chances of being offered leadership roles within a school. Among the 90,000 teachers it studied in four large, geographically diverse school districts, just 26 percent of high-performing teachers reported that they had been offered leadership opportunities by their principals, whereas 31 percent of low-performing teachers reported having such chances.

Reading that made me think about a teacher I know, Ms. Perez. A few years ago, she was teaching at a school that was about to be sanctioned under No Child Left Behind, so she and another excellent teacher were asked to rewrite the school plan in order to improve student achievement. They took their job seriously.

Each spent more than 40 hours attending meetings and sessions on school design before rewriting the massive document that was supposed to govern the life of the school. They homed in on better professional development for teachers as the key to improving instruction, and they devised a system in which teachers at each grade would co-create a lesson, rotate teaching it and observe and critique each other in the process.

The plan was approved by the district. The teachers were excited to put it into practice. But weeks passed and nothing happened.

The teachers went to the principal to get a timeline. He looked at them dismissively, explaining that the plan just needed to be written, not implemented. Little at the school changed. The next year, the principal was promoted. Today he's training other principals. That kind of disrespect for a teacher's time, abilities and ideas is exactly what drives so many high-performing teachers from the classroom.

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The good news is that, according to the report, it's not terribly difficult to keep good teachers happy. You see, we love what we do. And if we're just given support, encouragement and recognition, we're likely to stay around.

Still, as "The Irreplaceables" points out, there is only so much a high-performing teacher can do in the face of a principal who is indifferent — or actively resistant — to change. Several of the paper's recommendations point to a need for leadership cultures that are less top-down, more grounded in listening and more focused on supporting those teachers who teach students well.

The study recommends that we "overhaul principal hiring, support and evaluation to focus on instructional leadership abilities that result in smart teacher retention." Principals who recognize and value teachers' hard-earned expertise and treat them as collaborative partners in transforming schools ought to be rewarded.

Leadership like that would encourage the Ms. Perezes of the world to continue doing what they do: changing young lives on a daily basis.

Sujata Bhatt is a National Board Certified teacher.

© 2012 Los Angeles Times