Editorial: ‘The Irreplaceables’: How CPS can keep its best teachers

| Chicago Tribune | Editorial

An eye-opening new study crossed our desk on why so many “irreplaceable” school teachers leave the classroom. It should be a must-read for Chicago school and union leaders as they bargain over a new teachers contract.

TNTP, formerly The New Teacher Project, studied 90,000 teachers in four large, diverse urban school districts. (Chicago wasn't included.) Researchers found that about 20 percent of those teachers were so successful at reaching students they were nearly impossible to replace.

In a single school year, great teachers “help students learn two to three additional months' worth of math and reading compared to the average teacher, and five to six months more compared to low-performing teachers,” the study found. Those students are less likely to become teen parents and more likely to go to college and earn higher salaries as adults.

Terrific teachers make a huge difference in their students' education and in their lives. But they're not staying around to do that.

TNTP found that half of the “irreplaceable” teachers leave the classroom within the first five years on the job. The nation's 50 largest school districts lose some 10,000 great teachers every year. Poor teachers? They stick around, and that's not good. The study says: “40 percent of teachers with more than seven years of experience are less effective at advancing academic progress than the average first-year teacher.”

Treating good and bad teachers alike is a fine way to be sure the Chicago Public Schools system doesn't improve.

How can Chicago's schools retain the best teachers? Some tips:

  • Pay superior teachers more for performance, not simply for seniority or advanced degrees. In the current contract negotiations, CPS wisely proposes a merit pay system that would eliminate the “step” and “lane” system in which teachers are automatically rewarded for adding another year of seniority (“step” increases) and earning advanced degrees or certificates (“lane” raises). Unfortunately, CTU defends the one-size-fits-all system that does nothing to help encourage the best teachers to stay.

    We'd heed the warning of TNTP President Timothy Daly: “There has to be a way for the best teachers to make more money faster, or we will continue to lose them.”

  • Make retaining star teachers a priority for principals. The study is blunt: Too many principals fail at keeping their stars. Too many principals mount a half-hearted effort to retain all teachers, good and bad, under the mistaken notion that most teachers will improve given enough time and training. But struggling teachers rarely improve significantly, even when principals make “teacher development” a priority, the study said. Astonishing statistic: After three years of teacher tutoring, the average ineffective veteran teacher remained worse than the average first-year teacher, according to the study.
  • Give principals more flexibility to hire the best teachers. CPS recently agreed to hire 477 more elementary school teachers to handle the longer day this school year. But principals won't be free to find the best teachers. They'll be forced to hire from a pool of CPS teachers who were laid off in recent years. That's a big win for the union, but it doesn't guarantee that kids will find the best teachers at the head of the class come fall. Principals have to be able to hire the best of the best.
  • Pay stand-out teachers more for taking on new responsibilities or handling tougher assignments. Many “irreplaceable” teachers report they would have stayed if they'd had the opportunity to take on leadership roles and earn extra money, the study said. CPS' merit pay proposal would do that.

Last year CPS CEOJean-Claude Brizardtold us his goal was to install 675 terrific principals and allow them a wide berth to do their jobs. “If I have 675 tremendous principals,” Brizard said, “I can sit back and drink coffee.”

Not quite. He needs to make sure those 675 principals get the training and authority and flexibility they need to hire and retain superstar teachers. A new contract that ties their hands will not serve students.

CPS has irreplaceables in every school. Teachers, students, parents know who they are. Let's see a new contract that underscores how incredibly valuable these teachers are. A contract that surrounds those great teachers with other great teachers. A contract that ensures principals can offer powerful incentives to keep those teachers where they belong, at the head of the class.

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