Editorial: Schools must fight to retain great teachers

| Detroit News | Editorial

A new national report on teacher retention opens with a story about a veteran teacher who chose to start teaching at a low-achieving, largely minority school. After a year, this teacher had improved her fourth-grade students' test scores in reading and math. Her students behaved well in the classroom and respected her. Unfortunately, at the end of the school year, this teacher left the school in part because the administration failed to compensate her gifts.

The study underscores the importance of encouraging and keeping the best teachers. It contains lessons for Michigan schools.

“The Irreplaceables,” the latest study by TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project), focuses on what schools can do to retain the most effective teachers. The nonprofit organization published another report in 2009 called “The Widget Effect,” about the need for better teacher evaluations.

Much of what's discussed in the 52-page report seems like common sense. But too many districts haven't adopted these straightforward ideas. The study looked at four large, geographically-diverse districts in the U.S. and included 90,000 teachers.

According to the study, about 20 percent of teachers fall into the irreplaceable category. These teachers consistently make the largest impact on student performance. Yet principals often do little to recognize these teachers' superior work, lumping them together with all other teachers in the building.

Top teachers help their students learn an additional two to three months' worth of math and reading in a year, compared to average teachers. And as the study notes, students in these classrooms are more apt to go to college and earn higher salaries.

Keeping the best teachers at low-performing schools is especially vital, considering that it can take up to 11 new hires to one find one comparable teacher.

Yet when these superior teachers try to leave, their principals rarely encourage them to stay.

A consistent lack of feedback and reward is a primary reason why teachers decide to leave a particular school, even when they feel like they are making a difference in their classrooms.

Endurance too often trumps quality in how teachers are recognized and compensated, says David Keeling, vice president for communications at TNTP. And that creates a discouraging culture, especially for new teachers entering the field.

“It's time to be honest about ineffective teaching,” Keeling says.

Michigan is on its way to improving teacher quality. Through recent legislation, schools can no longer base layoff decisions solely on seniority, and schools will need to implement much more stringent teacher evaluations. These evaluations, which are currently being crafted by the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness, will serve as a good tool for helping administrators identify — and, ideally, retain — the irreplaceable teachers.

In addition to insufficient recognition, effective teachers cite inadequate pay as a reason for leaving. Compensation should reflect performance. While some teachers may flinch at merit pay, this study makes it clear many teachers would welcome it. Districts in cities such as Detroit could particularly benefit from the advice in this report. Students at low-performing schools stand to lose the most when great teachers leave.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

Learn More About TNTP