Editorial: Don’t let the best teachers get away
School districts across the USA are laying off teachers this summer — a pattern that has become an annual rite in some places where budgets are shrinking and enrollments are dropping.
About the only upside to the cutbacks is the opportunity they offer to winnow out low-performing teachers and leave the best talent in the classroom. But in too many districts, that's not happening. The result? When students return to school over the next few weeks, they'll find some of the best teachers gone and some of the worst still in their classrooms.
In four major cities, the top teachers leave schools at about the same rate as the least successful teachers,according to a study released last week by TNTP, a non-profit educational advocacy group formerly known as The New Teacher Project. Many schools don't even try to keep what the report calls these "irreplaceables." Schools fail to value or reward their most valuable players more than their least successful teachers. The consequences are devastating. Hiring good teachers and firing bad ones is the single best way to improve education. TNTP estimates that the nation's 50 largest urban school districts lose approximately 10,000 "irreplaceables" a year. TNTP identified the "irreplaceables" by analyzing student test scores to determine how much value teachers added to student learning.
In other professions, treating all workers equally, regardless of talent, would be inconceivable. Imagine football teams letting star players leave without a fight, then trying to fill the gap with third-stringers.
In many schools, it's just business as usual. Part of the problem is built into a system where unions rule and seniority is the main, and in some cases the only, consideration in layoffs. Attempts to deviate from the norm are quashed. In Pittsburgh, for example, the superintendent tried to persuade the union to allow effectiveness to be a factor in nearly 180 teacher furloughs last month. The union refused.
Meaningless evaluation systems, which have been the norm for years, often prevent identifying the best teachers. And lockstep compensation systems, which reward seniority and degrees earned without regard to performance, prevent raises going to top talent.
Though some of these ingrained barriers to retaining top talent are being dismantled, progress is painfully slow. Better evaluation systems based on student testing are taking hold in some states, as are performance-based raises.
Too often, though, principals pay more attention to how many teachers are leaving than to which teachers are leaving. They believe that most low-performing teachers will improve to an acceptable level with time and that consistent low performers will leave on their own. Neither is true, the study found. Changing those false perceptions and making retention of top teachers a priority would be a big step forward.
According to a survey of 20,000 teachers done for the study, less than half of high-performers were even told they were doing well. One talented teacher with three decades of experience transferred to a high-poverty school so she could share her considerable skills. But school leaders failed to take much notice of her expertise or ideas. One year later when she resigned, the principal didn't even blink. If he had just tried to stop her, she said, she would have stayed.
Recruiting and retaining great teachers is the key to making schools better. That won't happen until they are identified, paid better and given an occasional "well done."