School Disorder and Teacher Turnover

school_disciplineby James A. Bacon

Whatever else ails Virginia’s K-12 school system, it’s not an inability to create an environment favorable to teachers, at least if you believe WalletHub’s latest statewide ranking of the Best and Worst States for Teachers. Virginia ranks 2nd in the country based upon 13 metrics ranging from cost-of-living-adjusted salaries to the percentage of public school teachers threatened with injury by students. (For details on the methodology click here.)

Why do we care? Because salaries and working conditions affect the willingness of teachers to stay in the profession. More experienced teachers tend to be more effective teachers.

WalletHub cites a 2003 study by the Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy that found that one fifth of all new public-school teachers leave their positions before the end of their first year and half never last more than five. More recent research suggests that turnover is much lower. In a longitudinal study between 2007-2008 and 2011-2012, the National Center for Education Statistics concluded that only 10% of new teachers failed to return the next year, and only 17% within five years. The discrepancy may be explained by different economic conditions, which were more dire in the second study than the first. The decline in teacher turnover may reflect the lack of alternative job opportunities. Perhaps more teachers would have jumped ship if they could.

Regardless, it would be good to know the teacher turnover rate in Virginia. A 2009 annual report on the condition and needs of public schools in Virginia noted that annual teacher turnover for all teachers was slightly more than 9% percent. The figure was 10% percent for principals and assistant principals. I couldn’t find any consistent reporting of turnover numbers for Virginia, however, through searches on either Google or the Virginia Department of Education website. This would seem to be a basic metric and not especially difficult to calculate. There is no excuse for not tracking and benchmarking teacher turnover.

Whatever the overall numbers, the turnover problem does appear to be concentrated in schools serving low-income populations.

According to a 2014 WTVR report, 8% of all teachers at Martin Luther King Middle School in the City of Richmond had left by February! The TV station interviewed former teacher John Murden who had stuck it out for eight years before quitting. “I’d get so frustrated,” Burden said. “I’d put my backpack on and start to walk out. I’d get down the hallways and turn around and then go, ‘Okay, I need my job.’”

Other teachers told WTVR they couldn’t handle teaching at the school any more. The number one problem: the breakdown of discipline. “Kids were getting in trouble with lots of stuff,” said Murden. “Kids were getting in food fights with no repercussions. Students were threatening teachers and nothing would come of it.”

While teaching low-income kids is a special challenge, not all schools with low-income students have the same discipline problems. According to WTVR, the highest teacher turnover rate of any school in Chesterfield County, Davis Middle School, was 2.6%.

One possible solution, typically advocated by teacher advocacy organizations, is to pay teachers more in order to entice them to work in more challenging schools. But that won’t solve the problem of teachers quitting because they fear for their physical safety or are frustrated by the disorder that keeps them from teaching.

Enforcing order the traditional way — disciplining students — has become problematic because African-American students tend to be punished at higher rates than students of other ethnicities, which has provoked outcries of discrimination by organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and oversight by the federal Department of Education. Henrico County schools have sought to revamp their disciplinary programs by creating individualized student behavior programs and devoting more resources to student support.  It will be interesting to see if such reform efforts work.

One way or the other, if we can’t restore discipline in schools, we cannot maintain environments conducive to learning or retaining teachers. If Virginia is one of the best states for teachers, I shudder to think about conditions in other states.

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