The most volatile period of my 35-year career in education is happening now. Across the country, teachers have begun to react to downgrades in their status, credibility and authority.
According to a 2014 report from the Alliance for Excellent Education, the annual attrition rate of first-year teachers has risen by 40 percent over the last two decades, and 40 to 50 percent now leave the teaching profession within five years. Every year, 13 percent of teachers abandon the profession or migrate to more appealing schools, often leaving the disadvantaged more so.
The Washington state Legislature, charged with scrounging billions of dollars in additional funding to improve education and comply with the McCleary decision, must take the lead in funding effective training programs for our state’s teachers and give them the opportunity to collaborate and support each other.
In Washington and elsewhere, the insidious loss of professional power among American educators is eroding our quality of education. Many schools find it difficult to hire teachers in some subjects, such as mathematics, but only half the math and science teachers in disadvantaged schools have a degree and a license in their fields. Locally, we have seen teaching veterans bail, as outside meddling displaces learning. Not surprisingly, “highly qualified” means less when comparing our teachers across cultures or across nations.
Why are teachers jumping ship? “On the Path to Equity,” the Alliance for Education report referenced above, identified teachers’ complaints as such: “inadequate administrative support, isolated working conditions, poor student discipline, low salaries, and a lack of collective teacher influence over school-wide decisions.” Yet, many people regard teacher quality as the key to student achievement. Other research has revealed characteristics found in effective teaching cultures: Teachers need to be experts in the content they teach, and they must know how to teach it; they should have control over their professional environment, and they must collaborate to build power and coherence within it.
Here are steps the Legislature can take to create a better environment for teachers:
– Fund selective teacher preparation programs with rigorous training in specific subject areas. The quality of content preparation varies in American teacher preparation programs, but programs are selective and rigorous in countries where students outperform U.S. students.
– Fund teacher preparation programs that include apprenticeships in schools before teachers get their own classrooms, and continue to support good mentorship of new teachers. People studying education instruction in Washington already spend many hours of training within schools, a potentially effective practice. But building excellence within such programs requires more. Time in the schools takes away from time spent developing strong subject-matter knowledge, crippling new teachers’ productivity. Funding for these apprenticeship programs should selectively support those who show pedagogical promise and depth in a particular subject.
– Fund schools where teachers work together to plan lessons, write curricula and assess achievement. Teachers — not legislators or national test-writers or business leaders — are primary assessors of achievement, providing formative feedback to students. (Ask your children how much formative feedback the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, Measures of Academic Progress, End-of-Course exams, or Smarter Balanced tests provided them.) Additionally, redirect funding of redundant, high-stakes assessments toward building and maintaining strong teaching cultures. Although almost every country has big assessments, the U.S. has too many, aimed at too many students.
Research cited by the Alliance for Excellent Education estimated the 2008-2009 cost of teacher attrition in our state to be between $16 and $35 million dollars. The Legislature should think of the funding suggestions listed above as money in the bank.
Mike Lundin is professor of mathematics, specializing in mathematics education, at Central Washington University. His research has included how students transition from high school to college.