A COMPREHENSIVE study three years ago by the New Teacher Project showed how U.S. schools generally fail to recognize teacher quality, instead treating all teachers the same. Now comes an even more devastating finding from the group: Even when schools know the difference between good and bad teachers, they make no special effort to retain the good ones. Just as the previous report spurred improvements in teacher evaluation systems, this study should prompt changes in how teachers are treated.
The aptly named report, “The Irreplaceables,” concludes that the real teacher retention crisis in urban schools is not about the number of teachers who are leaving but the loss of really good ones. The two-year study identified the top 20 percent of teachers whose students consistently make the most progress on state exams. Not only do these teachers on average 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), but they also get high marks from students.
Yet the researchers found little effort by districts to hold on to these top performers. Only 47 percent of these high-performing teachers said they ever got praised for their work, and only 26 percent were encouraged to take leadership roles. Particularly shocking was the finding that two-thirds of the best teachers were never asked to stay when they told principals of their plans to depart. “Our findings suggest that Irreplaceables usually leave for reasons that their school could have controlled,” the report says.
The study identifies some simple, low-cost strategies that could help boost teacher retention, such as giving positive feedback. Other reforms will be harder to accomplish. Paramount is doing away with lockstep compensation systems that prevent top teachers from being properly paid, particularly early in their careers, when they are most likely to move on; layoff policies that are blind to quality; and onerous dismissal rules that make it difficult to fire a tenured teacher for performance. That being the best doesn’t earn you more money or protect your job helps explain why the teaching profession lacks the respect it deserves. Identifying these problems is a critical step, so it was encouraging that a representative from the National Education Association, the largest teachers union, was onstage for the report’s release.