Report Finds Urban Schools Losing Talented Teachers Because of Poor Conditions, Pay

Leslie Brody | The Record
07/31/12

Urban schools nationwide lose tens of thousands of their best teachers yearly because of poor working conditions and seniority-dominated salary systems that don't pay the most talented teachers what they're worth, said a report released Monday by a national non-profit.

Called "The Irreplaceables," the report was released by the TNTP, formerly known as The New Teacher Project, with the support of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. It is likely to generate considerable attention; the group's 2009 study called "The Widget Effect," which called for more meaningful, data-driven evaluations, was quoted widely during debates over tenure reform in New Jersey and elsewhere.

The new report comes as the Christie administration continues to push for higher pay for teachers in hard-to-staff posts and those qualified to take on extra mentoring duties. The report said compensation was among the reasons cited most frequently by top teachers who quit.

The report studied four unnamed urban districts encompassing 90,000 teachers and 1.4 million students. It focused on the 20 percent of teachers deemed so good at helping students learn that they were nearly impossible to replace, and said about half of them left within their first five years.

"Schools rarely make a strong effort to keep these teachers despite their success — and rarely usher unsuccessful teachers out," the report said.

Extrapolating from those districts, the report estimated that the 50 biggest districts nationwide lose about 10,000 "irreplaceable" teachers each year. It said many principals neglected to make effective teachers feel valued, and two-thirds of those who left indicated that nobody encouraged them to stay. Giving rigorous feedback and protecting talent during layoffs would help, the report said.

"Our schools should be obsessed with keeping the best teachers, but today it appears that they are almost oblivious to them," TNTP President Tim Daly said in a statement announcing the report.

One Passaic science teacher who asked not to be named agreed that some effective teachers quit in frustration when administrators did not support them. When disorderly students acted up, for example, some administrators sent them right back to class instead of enforcing discipline. "I do the best I can but when all else fails I have to send them to the vice principal," she said. "When you don't get backup, it's difficult."

Danielle Kovach, New Jersey's teacher of the year in 2011, said she has seen "phenomenal teachers that have left teaching because they were not valued for their expertise." She expressed wariness, however, about performance pay systems that evaluate teachers based on student achievement data, saying the data can be an unreliable measure of teacher quality.

"I'm a special education teacher, and sometimes progress is getting a student to come to school and like it," said Kovach, who teaches in Hopatcong. "Where is the data to prove that?"

A spokeswoman for the New Jersey Education Association, Dawn Hiltner, said the report made some valuable points. She said the union joined the state Department of Education last week in applying for a $10 million federal grant that would give extra stipends to effective teachers who can serve as coaches for their colleagues. Those stipends would come on top of regular contracts that allot pay by seniority.

"There are exceptional teachers out there and you want them to share what they've learned," Hiltner said. "Straight merit pay would reward them for a job well done, but what does it do to extend them beyond their own classrooms?" 

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