The fourth-grade teacher was by any measure a star. Fidgety students behaved in her class. Test scores were high. She had come to the low-income neighborhood school to make an impact. In her class, she did. But few of her supervisors or colleagues seemed to care.
“School leaders gave her little recognition,” says a new research study on how schools treat great teachers. They “failed to take advantage of her instructional expertise and stymied the sort of team-building and collaboration that had helped her boost performance among students and fellow teachers at other schools for decades.”
So this summer, she left for another school that wanted her talent. She told the researchers that when she resigned, the principal “just signed my paperwork, and didn’t even say a word. . . . It made me feel like he couldn’t care less, not about me and not about this school.”
The report from the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit research and training organization, is titled “The Irreplaceables: Understanding the Real Retention Crisis in America’s Urban Schools.” It looked at four urban districts with 90,000 teachers. The researchers discovered that only 47 percent of high-performing teachers said they were praised by their bosses for their good work. Only 26 percent were encouraged to take leadership roles. And just 37 percent were urged to stay when contemplating other assignments.
“Top teachers seem to be shortchanged at every turn,” the report concluded. “Policies at the state and local level often cause them to earn less than their least effective colleagues and fail to protect them in the event of layoffs. They endure districts and schools that fail to value their talents and do not provide them with supportive school cultures.”
This is not news to anyone who has spent time with top teachers. Rafe Esquith, in my view the best classroom teacher in the country, makes less money than many of his colleagues at the Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Los Angeles because he lacks a master’s degree. Dave Levin, co-founder of the KIPP charter school network, was fired early in his career shortly after being voted teacher of the year by his school’s faculty because he defied his principal and proved that his immigrant students could pass a state test.
Great teachers tend to push for higher standards. They speak up when they see something that is holding students back. Many principals are irritated by that. They prefer teachers who do not complain, even if they are not so hot in the classroom.
The New Teacher Project study defined irreplaceable teachers as those in the top 20 percent measured by student improvement on achievement tests. Such assessments have flaws, but in this case, survey data buttressed the distinctions. The students of the top-rated teachers were also surveyed and gave them more points for helping during difficult lessons and making learning enjoyable. More than 22,000 teachers and more than 1,700 school leaders responded to the survey.
Interestingly, the study contradicted a central belief of the New Teacher Project’s founder, former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, that top educators are more likely to believe that teachers can lead students to success despite challenges. Only 53 percent of the irreplaceable teachers felt that way, not much more than the 50 percent of all teachers or 44 percent of ineffective teachers who shared that view.
What should schools change about the way they treat irreplaceable teachers? The study suggested that districts make retaining great teachers a priority and rate principals on their success at doing that. Principals also should address the problems of low-performing teachers by helping them improve and counseling them into other fields if they don’t get better, the study said.
The great teachers I know would be pleased just to have their ideas taken seriously. Although I think they also would endorse the study’s recommendation that they be paid more and given more chances to lead.