A new Education Week story by Bess Keller raises questions about the now-conventional wisdom that up to half of all new teachers leave the profession within the first five years. Or is it 40 percent? (as leading researcher Richard Ingersoll still contends). Or is it closer to 33 percent? (as leading policy maven Linda Darling Hammond still contends). Keller points to several recent studies in California and Illinois that suggest the figure may be somewhere in the 20-30 percent range.

This story and these new reports are bringing aid and comfort to many edu-bloggers and teacher union critics who spend a lot of time trying to counter arguments that teacher working conditions are part of the reason it’s so hard to boost student achievement in some schools.

But if you disaggregate these stories and reports, you still find that attrition is higher in high-needs schools, and that high-needs schools have higher percentages of new and inexperienced teachers. Keller’s main story profiles a group of teachers she first interviewed in 2003. She finds they are all still in teaching. It’s fascinating reading, but it’s the important sidebar to Keller’s story that’s causing most of the stir about whether teacher attrition is overblown (and in some blogger accounts, a nefarious plot by unions to get more money). In the sidebar (“Oft-Cited Statistic Likely Inaccurate”), Keller writes:

Most worrisome about the 50 percent figure, though, may be the way it obscures the damage done to some schools—typically those serving poor and minority children—from teachers’ switching schools. Evidence suggests that teachers are more likely to leave high-poverty, high-minority, and low-performing schools than schools without those characteristics, although working conditions, not the characteristics themselves, may be mostly to blame…. According to Mr. Ingersoll, in the 2000-01 school year, low-poverty schools turned over between 11 percent and 16 percent of their teachers annually, while high-poverty urban schools had to replace between 19 percent and 26 percent.

Vacancies in high-poverty schools tend to be filled by brand-new teachers—who because of their inexperience are less effective than the teachers who left. Plus, the churn disrupts the schools’ chance to build strong teaching teams. For those reasons, teaching in the most challenged schools, where the best educators are most needed, is often weakest.

Keller’s main story, “Gone After Five Years – Think Again,” reinforces these observations. As the teaser for the story summarizes: “Common wisdom says as many as half of new teachers quit after five years. The half-dozen (teachers) Education Week profiled starting out are still teaching, though only two are in needy schools.”

Keller notes that thoughtful analysts of all this emerging data do not suggest that attrition isn’t a problem. Instead, they say, as the researchers in the Illinois study wrote, that

Broad-brush, statewide strategies to reduce attrition are not the answer. We need targeted, school-by-school approaches that involve teachers, parents, and principals to create more positive school environments that are more conducive to teaching and learning.

The NC-based Center for Teaching Quality (which supports TLN) has surveyed over 150,000 teachers in three states as part of its Teacher Working Conditions research. That data confirms that working conditions DO affect a school’s ability to retain teachers. In its 2006 report for NC governor Mike Easley, for example, CTQ found that

• In middle schools, for every increase in the number of teachers who agree they have sufficient planning time without student contact, there is a decline in teacher turnover rates.

• In high schools, for every increase in the number of teachers who agree their school leadership is effective, there is decrease in teacher turnover rates.

The CTQ report also notes that teachers and administrators have different views about the definition of “working conditions.” Not too surprising when leadership is such a key part of the equation.

A more focused and useful debate around the issue of teacher “stickiness” might be: What are the working conditions that attract or repel quality teachers in high needs schools?

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