What Is Causing Teacher Churn?

Emma Clark, from her Twitter page

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a teacher turnover rate of nearly 20% — compared to a national average of 11% to 13% — superintendent Jason Kamras has rescinded the policy.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.

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9 responses to “What Is Causing Teacher Churn?

  1. The Virginia Mercury addressed the issue of teacher turnover as well today: “The number of unfilled teaching positions in Virginia increased 40 percent from 2007 to 2017 and is a “crisis” specifically in high-poverty school divisions, according to a 2017 report from the Advisory Committee on Teacher Shortages.”

    Of course, teacher pay is cited as a major issue. Teacher pay hasn’t kept up with inflation. (No one in the article addresses the issue of how much school districts have increased their contributions to teacher retirement funds.)

    However, the article quotes Luke Miller with UVA’s Curry School of Education and Human Development:

    The best predictor of whether a teacher would come back appears to be schools’ poverty rates, Miller said.

    “That doesn’t necessarily mean that the poverty is driving teachers out,” Miller said. “There could be other things.”

    Factors cited: school buildings in low-income school districts are usually worse. And there are fewer support staff. Gee, I wonder, could anything else — anything at all — be playing a role?

  2. I think the disciplinary issue is way overblown because in my own county – they have an alternative program – a separate building where they send the disciplinary cases and the environment there is not like regular school.

    But the problem with low-performing schools is that there is tremendous pressure on the principal to improve and some principals resort to extreme measures that harm school and teacher morale and they leave if they can and yes.. if the school system tries to keep them there – they’ll leave that school system all together.

    But even the younger teachers that stay will leave unless there is something
    compelling to keep them there .

    It takes a particular kind of Principal to keep teachers in low performing schools – and they are in short supply and so many low performing schools get principals who are simply not up to the task – which is not for everyone.

    Want to REALLY look at attrition? Take a look at how long Principals stay at troubled schools. It’s usually a short job for most of them. They take the job for the principal salary but the job is much tougher than well-performing schools Principals.

    But yes… how hard is it to get the turnover rate for principals in Richmond?

    • Yes, it would be interesting to know the turnover rate for principals — and for other school staff, not just teachers. School systems don’t seem to have focused on that problem, however, so I presume that it is not regarded as a “crisis.”

  3. No, the discipine/classroom climate issue is not overblown. But it is not limited to low-income schools, quite the contrary. The days when parents “backed the school” as a default position are over and gone, and in the nicer neighborhoods the angry parents bring a lawyer to the meetings. Or a television reporter. I’ve watched the change from the front row for five decades (she’s teaching today) and would not encourage young people to enter that profession. And that is tragic.

    • True, there is a general sense of parental entitlement that transcends race and socioeconomic background. It is a universal problem. But the effects of the breakdown in discipline are more evident in some schools than others.

  4. Be prepared to pay more taxes, the dems are going to blue wave the state legislature, and will be on board with Governor Woke’s agenda of reconciliation and restitution. Lamont Bagby is quietly becoming the most powerful man in VA and will be driving the agenda.
    The answer will be more $$$. I will predict no results for the money but the teachers who survive elementary school hunger games will get an extra 8% or so pay bump. This of course will mean nothing to the students and the celebration of “life ain’t nothing but b!tches and $$$”, YOLO, and everything I don’t like is oppression lifestyle will grow. Unfortunately for most communities this will cause a new wave of exodus by the rich, and those who will suffer for their kids, away from woke schools which self-perpetuates a further downward spiral… The good teachers bail, taxes don’t get paid, and on and on… until we end up with Baltimores.
    I will also predict some new tax payer funded programs to pay college costs for teachers of color (fight institutional racism). I also predict free school sounds good, and i won’t blame them for taking the money, but they’ll find the realities of teaching now sucks and most will bail.
    The answer needs to be disciplinary programs, uniforms, positive mentoring, three strikes type schools, and holding parents ultimately accountable. One way to do that is tax everyone. Even if you need to increase a welfare check just to take taxes from it. Let everyone see how much they are paying. And how much they’ll have to pay for crazy progressive hopeful plans.

  5. re: ” No, the discipine/classroom climate issue is not overblown. But it is not limited to low-income schools, quite the contrary.”

    Well, NO – if the continuing narrative that it’s the cause of low SOL scores, kids failing to graduate , etc… as if – if we “fixed” the discipline problems at these schools that they’d do “better”, i.e. getting rid of the discipline problems is a “solution” (even if we don’t know what we’d do with them once separated).

    That’s been the narrative here in BR – over and over – that “discipline” is THE cause of kids “failing” in low-performing, high free/reduced lunch schools.

    “Discipline” is a problem at ALL public schools – and often aided and abetted by ignorant and obnoxious parents who think they are entitled to be boors when it comes to their kids.

    We have School “Resource” officers at all of our High and Middle and now Elementary schools – regardless of the academic performance of the school and the “discipline” issues are present at all the schools.

    This blog desperately needs some contributors who are actual teachers – similar to how Steve (and Dick) “know” the GA , the SCC, planning and budget – it would be great if we could get an actual teacher and for that matter an actual black person to help with balancing the perspective at times!

    • One of the things you need to do before criticizing someone else, Larry, is understand what they’re saying. Once again you are constructing a strawman.

      “That’s been the narrative here in BR – over and over – that “discipline” is THE cause of kids “failing” in low-performing, high free/reduced lunch schools.”

      I have argued (a) that the new social-justice approach to school discipline has led to a decline in discipline in Virginia schools, most markedly those with high percentages of African-American students, and (b) that the decline in discipline explains why the decline in test scores of predominantly African-American schools has been much more pronounced than for other schools. That is not the same as saying discipline is the cause of poor kids failing. There are many factors that help explain the variability in test scores, as I have repeatedly said. But the change in disciplinary policy, I argue, is largely responsible for the increase in the rate of failure in the past couple of years.

      If you can’t comprehend the difference between the two concepts, then you probably need some remedial schooling of your own.

  6. Lack of order in a classroom or workplace prevents success. Read some of the first-person accounts of Civil War soldiers. Those volunteers whose commander enforced rules, such as requiring the sinks to be built reasonably outside the camp’s streets and downstream from the source of water and punishing men who didn’t use the sinks, were healthier, happier and operated more efficiently. Same thing with drills and cooking regulations.

    This is not to argue that a classroom in a grade or middle school need function like VMI. And kids are not perfect; they need some room to fail and grow. I strongly believe in second chances for non-violent people. But at some point, one child’s continued disorder and misconduct cannot be accepted as it can severely hurt the rest of the class.

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