Ending the martyrdom of American teachers

What can American policymakers do about our teacher retention problem?

Liz Riggs’s recent essay in the Atlantic Monthly, “Why Do Teachers Quit?” draws attention to an ongoing crisis with a direct impact on American students.

Each year, about 16 percent of America’s teachers quit teaching—with about 40-50 percent leaving within their first five years.

The resulting shortages leave students—particularly those in high-need communities—in the care of a revolving cast of (often inexperienced) adults.

Riggs noted that teachers tend to bow out because of poor salaries as well as “overall job dissatisfaction,” caused by factors such as a lack of administrative support and/or conditions necessary to teach effectively. She found that some interviewees left because they “were wholly unhappy or drained” while others “wanted more money.” And many cited “individual stress levels.” Riggs rightfully points to the “emotional energy” teachers put into their work, particularly in low-performing schools.

Here’s what she heard from Emma, a 26-year-old former teacher in Kansas who now works for a non-profit: “It stems from this sense that teachers aren’t real people, and the only thing that came close to [making me stay] was the kids.”

But isn’t that just the nature of the profession?

In Singapore, where students consistently outperform Americans on international measures of student achievement, the annual attrition rate for teachers is less than 3 percent.

When I visited Singaporean schools in early October, I saw very hard-working teachers, but did not observe teachers stressed in ways that Riggs describes (and that researchers have long documented in American schools).

And in a recent Ministry of Education survey, teachers indicated the following top three reasons for staying in the field:

  • a positive culture with a strong sense of mission;
  • good compensation and rewards benchmarked against market rates;
  • and a wide range of opportunities for professional growth and development.

Hm… doesn’t sound like the same profession that Riggs found in America, does it?

Average teacher pay is higher in Singapore than in any other country. And teachers can earn up to 30 percent more than their base salaries if they excel on their rigorous performance evaluations (subtle distinction: not “if their students excel on standardized tests”). But as Cynthia Seto, a math specialist who teaches and works with the Academy of Singapore teachers, told me emphatically, “For teachers to progress up career ladder and to earn performance pay, they have to share their expertise with colleagues.” (Cynthia, along with her colleague Irene Tan, are part of the CTQ-Global lab.)

However, perhaps most importantly, teachers in Singapore are uniformly well-prepared to teach, have about 15-25 hours a week to collaborate with their colleagues in order to improve their teaching; and are provided an additional 100 hours a year of high-quality professional development led by expert peers (subtle distinction: not “by consultants). Each year, about one in 11 Singapore teachers earns a sabbatical to study teaching in another context.

Why would teachers stay?

American teachers deserve policies that set them up for success—that offer them the preparation, support, and conditions to make teaching a career. (And I’m not just talking about teachers in the far-off future, but the tens of thousands of classroom experts already hard at work in our schools.)

When we need inspiration, we can look to Singapore. There, teachers are trusted. There, well-prepared professionals are expected and supported to improve over time. There, teachers have every reason to stay. No martyrdom necessary.