Emma Clark was an idealistic young woman who became a teacher at Boushall Middle School, a Richmond school where three in four students are eligible for government assistance. “I wanted to get into a high needs school because, to me, the whole point of getting into education was to try to create more equity of opportunity in our country,” she told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “That meant teaching in a school where kids aren’t getting everything they deserve.”
After two and a half years of teaching civics, Clark left Boushall. She didn’t like the direction the school was heading under a new principal, she told the RTD. She would have liked to have transferred to another city school but a Richmond Public Schools policy prohibited teachers from transferring schools before they’ve taught for three years. She now teaches in Chesterfield County.
Desperate to reduce a teacher turnover rate of nearly 20% — compared to a national average of 11% to 13% — superintendent Jason Kamras has rescinded the policy. Better to let someone transfer within the system than to see them move to a school in Henrico, Chesterfield, or Hanover County.
Teacher turnover is a chronic issue in Richmond Public Schools, as it is at many other low-performing school districts. (And by “low performing,” I mean schools where standardized test scores fall below the level expected based on the percentage of students classified as disadvantaged or disabled.) But it astonishes me how little attention is given, either by school administrators or local media, as to why turnover is so high. City schools attract many idealistic young teachers who want to make a difference — they just don’t stay long.
Other than noting that Clark “didn’t like the direction the school was headed, the RTD provided no information on why she left. It might be helpful to provide some context.
As with most other Richmond Public Schools, standardized test scores at Boushall have fallen disastrously in the past two or three years. On Civics & Econ tests, the pass rate at the middle school peaked at 83.4% in the 2014-15 school year, then fell to 54.6% by 2017-18. One might speculate that Clark found the plummeting test scores to be demoralizing.
Not knowing anything about Clark’s personal circumstances or convictions, one can note that, according to surveys of departing teachers at other Virginia school systems, among the most commonly cited reasons for leaving are workload, school culture & climate, student discipline & behavior, and lack of administrative support.
What might have caused such a plunge in pass rates — 34.5% over three years — at Boushall Middle School when Virginia Department of Education figures show that performance on the Civics & Econ tests dropped only 1.0% across the state over the same period?
As I have frequently pointed out, one big change has been the institutionalization of a new disciplinary policy informed by social justice principles. Rather than relying on suspensions and other negative punishments, the emphasis now is more therapeutic. The new approach puts more responsibility on teachers to act as social counselors. Tending to disruptive students cuts into classroom teaching time. I have no idea if that was an issue for Clark, but it has been for other teachers.
The Virginia Department of Education Safe Schools Information Resource provides data on the number of disciplinary incidents and punishments reported for each school in the Commonwealth. Given the intense pressure to improve results and under-report disciplinary offenses, it is hard to know what to make of the data. For Boushall, the evidence is mixed.
Between the 2013-14 and 2017-18 school years, the number of students attending the middle school increased 33.1%. The number of “student offenders” increased only 26.4%, seemingly a slight relative improvement compared to the increase in the student body. However, drill into the numbers in the kinds of offenses reflecting classroom discipline — “classroom or campus disruption,” “defiance of authority/insubordination,” “and “disrespect (walking away, taking back, etc.) and you’ll find that the number of student offenders increased 66.7%.
Meanwhile, despite intense pressure to reduce the number of suspensions, Boushall experienced an increase in short-term, out-of-school suspensions — from 560 in the 2013-14 school year to 789 in the 2016-17 school year, an increase of 40.9%. Then in 2017-18, the number of suspensions sharply reversed course to 642. Did that decline reflect a change toward better student behavior, or a change in school policy?
Over the same five-year period, in direct contravention of the aims of the social justice-informed disciplinary policy, Boushall went from zero long-term, out-of-school suspensions to 93.
How did these trends register with Clark? No clue. I searched her Twitter and Facebook posts. She posted frequently on the issues of teacher pay (not enough) and state spending on education (not enough) but had nothing at all to say about her experience working at Boushall Middle. She never discussed online her differences with Boushall’s new principal. The only hint of dissatisfaction was the following post: “Left Job at Richmond Public Schools.” No explanation. No expression of remorse. No signs of sentimentality or missing anyone.
Somewhere in there, there’s a story — not just about Clark but about teacher turnover. We’re just not getting it.There are currently no comments highlighted.