"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, October 15, 2007

Attracting and Keeping Qualified Teachers

Rather than Teach for America's revolving door solution based on a never-ending stream of unprepared Ivy League temps, Dan Brown has some different ideas. From Huffington Post:

How can any education plan succeed when so many teachers - the lifeblood of schools - are brand new to the job? New drafts of No Child Left Behind could contain the best ideas in education history, but they won't work in the long run unless we address the biggest crisis in our schools today: recruiting and keeping quality teachers in high-needs urban schools.

A recent New York City Council study determined that 18 percent of New York City teachers leave after one year, and 25 percent are gone after two; that's nearly double the national average. A brain drain is dragging down our city schools, where 50 percent of new teachers leave within five years. In rural and suburban districts, the rate is around 10 percent.

The urban teacher "dropout" problem is fixable. Through better mentoring and in-school support for new teachers, smaller class sizes, and more competitive pay, the revolving door can be stopped.

As a rookie fourth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was subject to an unofficial but common trial-by-fire, in which the administration loaded my class with problem-reputation children. In the first week of school, one disturbed child jumped on a desk during a 9/11 moment of silence, wildly screaming a string of expletives. My "dumping ground" room was a disaster zone from the first day and it took an incredible amount of time and effort to turn the year into a positive experience.

The combination of extremely high-needs students and my naive, rookie mistakes led to student fights and fractured lessons. At 22, I started losing my hair because of the stress. And many of my struggling students, lumped together all day in my room, were denied the individualized support and expertise they deserve.

Throughout my brutal initiation, I felt no satisfaction with the knowledge that I could possibly earn an easier set-up the next year, while the next newbie would have to twist in the wind the way I did. New teachers need protection from this ugly, unwritten practice. As things stand, it's no surprise that over a third of city teachers reported in a citywide 2007 Department of Education survey that they do not trust their principals.

Rookies require a lot of help to manage the taxing and seemingly endless list of tasks that running a classroom requires. Green teachers should be paired with quality veterans in "team-teaching" environments to experience good practices in action.

New teachers should also work with smaller classes, so that they - and the children - aren't overwhelmed. My classes had 25 to 28 students on average; the middle school classes I currently work with have no fewer than 30. A better number would be 20. And teachers aren't the only ones pleading for more intimate spaces; lower class size is the No. 1 recommendation among parents in the NYC Department of Education survey.

Smaller classes will keep teachers' workloads under control and allow for many more critical opportunities for individual and small-group attention. Strong personal relationships are an invaluable part of education, and giant classes make it difficult to foster these relationships with every student.

The top recommendation in the City Council report for attracting and retaining teachers is: "Increase salaries to more competitive levels." Coupling higher salaries with broader student loan forgiveness would draw many more talented teachers to the field.

This year, a first-year New York City teacher with a bachelor's degree will earn $43,362. Most rookie teachers around the country earn far less. There are some bonuses available for high-needs subject math and science teachers, but the majority of new teachers make do with pay in the low 40s and no help with New York City's hardest-hitting expense - housing. Recently, the United Federation of Teachers struck a deal to build 234 affordable housing units in the South Bronx for educators. This is a start, but it will help to stem the teacher attrition crisis only if it spreads much further than 234 apartments.

An uncountable number of excellent would-be teachers choose higher-earning jobs because they are saddled with student loan debt, or because earning a rookie teacher salary is financially prohibitive. Public servants deserve better.

New teachers must be supported in their professional environments and their pocketbooks. The prospect of walking away from teaching - a job that many enter for altruistic, good-hearted reasons - will be a lot less likely when it is solidified as a nurturing, competitive-salaried profession.

Supporting teachers has a price tag, but it can be partially offset by reducing New York Ciity's $115 million annual turnover expenses. Nationally, the annual turnover expense is in the billions. Let's spend our money on offense, not defense.

Parents and students deserve continuity and excellence from schools. Unless we make more of a front-end investment in teachers, we will continue to hemorrhage good people, and scramble every year to replace them with well-meaning but under-prepared rookies.

Dan Brown is the author of the memoir, "The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle." He currently teaches at a middle school in East Harlem.

A version of this essay originally appeared in the New York Post.


  1. Good post, Jim. Please tell me what point you want me to understand after I read Brown's essay? I understand Brown's view, but not why you posted it on your blog.

  2. The new teacher scenario described here is too familiar to most of us. There is growing interest among some school districts and some teacher-ed colleges in establishing residency-style teacher prep programs that place candidates within actual schools for most of their teacher ed experience (1-2 years rather than the last 2-3 months); pairing them with a veteran mentor, possibly as a team teacher or other arrangement before putting them in classroom alone, still with support. Have you looked at any of these programs and do you think they have promise?