The Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington, Bothell (soon moving to South Lake Union) issued a brief in May 2010, which I recently came across, that highlights the detrimental churn in teaching staff that Title I schools experience.

The actual purpose of the 9-page brief (“The Disproportionate Impact of Seniority-Based Layoffs on Poor, Minority Students” by Cristina Sepe and Marguerite Roza) was to question seniority in the teaching profession  and how the policy of “Last in, first out (LIFO),” according to these authors, affects students in high poverty schools.

When districts issue layoff notices during times of budget cuts, the first teachers to be let go are the most recent hires. This report argues that  low-income/Title 1 schools have a disproportionate number of new teachers, so these schools disproportionately lose their teachers during layoffs, and this adds to the churn in these schools.

Though its intent was to critique the policy of “last in, first out,”  the conclusions that Roza and Sepe draw can be equally — perhaps even more accurately — applied to the current national trend of sending a revolving stream of short-term, fast-tracked Teach for America recruits  into our nation’s neediest schools.

Just about every rationale Sepe and Roza give against the policy of LIFO could also be applied to the policy of using Teach for America “teachers” in high-poverty schools.

Citing various compelling sources,  the report outlines numerous valid reasons why churn is bad for kids. Here are some of the claims:

Schools with predominantly low-income children already experience a higher rate of teacher and principal turnover. So they do not need any more churn. ( See: “Chronic teacher turnover in urban Elementary Schools” by Kacey Guin, also of CRPE.)

Children establish bonds with their teachers and they need stability in their schools in order to thrive.

“Established relationships are lost,” schools are “destabilized” even further when teaching staff changes. (From the CRPE brief itself): So what’s the effect of these layoffs on students? For those who believe teachers are interchangeable, swapping out a junior teacher for one from across the district might not seem so problematic. And yet, a growing body of research has documented that “churn” in teachers in some schools is indeed problematic, particularly to its ability to function coherently.7 When schools see more teacher turnover, established relationships are lost— such as with families and teachers, between teachers, and with principals and teachers. Teacher turnover means that process of building and sustaining working relationships starts over. Additionally, site-based professional development starts anew, and teachers reassigned may be unhappy in their new assignments. All of these factors work together to further destabilize schools with high turnover, to the detriment of students.

Low income schools have an unequal amount of inexperienced teachers. The brief  also states that low income schools have a disproportionate number of less-experienced teachers, referring to this as ‘teacher experience inequality” and “a troubling but consistent trend.” (This implies  that more experienced teachers bring value or stability to schools that newer teachers cannot.)

(…) In their place, less experienced teachers move into the high-poverty schools, leading to the teacher experience inequality.10
Teaching experience varying by school poverty concentration is reflected nationally. As shown in figure 1, the highest-poverty schools, where over 75 percent of their students qualified for free and reduced-price meals, had the highest percentage of teachers with less than four years teaching experience. Students at these schools are more likely to have a less experienced teacher than their peers at lower-poverty schools. Figure 1. Teachers at higher-poverty schools are more likely to have less experience 11

(…)  Evidence repeatedly shows that the higher concentration of newer teachers in high-poverty, high-minority schools versus low-poverty, low-minority schools in the same district is a troubling but consistent trend. For example, The Education Trust found that in 43 out of 50 Texas
school districts, the highest-poverty schools had more novice teachers than the lowest-poverty schools. Similarly, 42 out of 50 of those districts had more novice teachers in the highest-minority schools than the lowest-minority schools.12

The Teach for America, Inc. business model is a recipe for churn. Its recruits are trained for only five weeks and are expected to only teach for two years before moving on to their “real profession” which most often has little or nothing to do with actual teaching.  (See SIDEBAR I – below: The real objective of Teach for America is not to create teachers, says founder Wendy Kopp. It’s to train “leaders.”)

What’s more, according to CRPE’s own study, more experienced teachers are more desirable. That being the case, CRPE’s opposition to “last in, first out” seems contradictory. After all, the current teacher’s union policy allows more experienced teachers to retain their jobs in time of layoffs.

The CRPE report also states that teaching jobs are scarce — assuming the authors are referring to teachers when they say “…the total number of education jobs fell for the first time in over two decades.” Why then does a city like Seattle, which has no shortage of eager and fully credentialed teachers and three teacher-training schools, need an influx of TFA recruits in a recession job market?

Though unintentionally, this CRPE report makes a pretty compelling case against the use of Teach for America “teachers.”

All of which leads me to ask again: Why is Seattle Public Schools planning to put fast-tracked, short-term TFA novice “teachers” into Seattle’s Title I schools?

Another niggling issue that underlies this report: the implication that there is some kind of rash of “bad teachers” in our nation’s schools, when in fact there is no evidence of this. (See SIDEBAR II – below: The myth of the plague of bad teachers). So the strange fixation of  ed reformist organizations like CRPE on “ineffective” teachers would seem exaggerated, or at the very least, based on a false premise.

Indeed, both CRPE and Bill Gates have spoken or written about reforms they favor — expanding class sizes or doing away with seniority — primarily in terms of cost-savings. This leaves the impression that they are driven purely by economic considerations, and not by the reality of what’s best for kids and teachers. (This CRPE brief is apparently part of the “$CHOOLS IN CRISIS: MAKING ENDS MEET series of Rapid Response briefs.”)

The problem is, sometimes what’s best is not what’s cheapest.

What I find most troubling about the CRPE report is that it doesn’t address the most essential question that it brings up. That is: Why do high poverty schools suffer from high staff turnover? What is it about such schools that makes teachers and principals unable or unwilling to stay? What are the unique challenges to teaching or administering low-income children? This seems to be the heart of the matter.

Until CRPE and others address these questions, we are just dancing round the issue. And it’s foolhardy to think that sending in “enthusiastic” (that’s ageist reformite speak for “young”) TFA-ers into these schools for a couple of years is going to solve this issue.

Here’s some more compelling reading on the subject:

The Rise of High Poverty Schools in America: Why Poor Kids Get Left Behind, by Melanie Smollin, Take Part

The percentage of American children living in poverty has been on the rise throughout the past decade, contributing to a growing number of high poverty schools where more than two thirds of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

The U.S. Department of Education just released its 2010 Condition of Education report which contains some sobering statistics:

Between the 1999-2000 and 2007-2008 school years, before the effects of the current recession were even fully felt, the ratio of high poverty schools increased from 12 to 17 percent. In all, a whopping 16,122 public schools have been labeled high poverty.

And the trend shows no signs of reversing.

From the very first time they enter a classroom, disadvantaged children are already behind, says Richard Rothstein, research associate at the Economic Policy Institute. (For the rest of the article, click here.)


SIDEBAR I: The real objective of Teach for America is not to create teachers, says founder Wendy Kopp. It’s to train “leaders.”

Teach for America, Inc. CEO Wendy Kopp herself has acknowledged that TFA is not really a program to create teachers but to create “leaders.” She  has said that the two-year stint that TFA-ers do is just a detour on the way to their real professions — which are “two years away.” Here she is in a Jan. 21, 2011  interview on the Smiley & West radio show:

Smiley: (…) That said, as you well know, one of the criticisms, perhaps the most constant criticism of the program is this 2 year commitment.  That for some of these young people it’s really not so much about staying, about choosing teaching as a profession, as Dr. West has for 35 plus years, but it’s a stepping stone.

Can you speak to the criticism of the program that for many students, many young people it’s a stepping stone and not really a lifelong commitment to young people and their learning.

Kopp:              I think that’s an unfortunate perception.  The people who come in to Teach for America, and I know you probably have met many of them along the way, are just deeply, deeply committed.  They’re graduating seniors and the rest of their life is 2 years away. So they’re making a 2 year commitment to this instead of making a 2 year commitment to something else.

According to Kopp, then, “the rest of their life” is on hold for two years. So what does that make those two years they spend in the lives of the schoolkids they are responsible for teaching? Purgatory?

The Smiley & West interview is worth reading/listening to. The hosts graciously welcome Kopp and give her credit for doing some good work, but then they basically confront her with all the most cogent and legitimate questions and concerns many of us have about her enterprise. I found it particularly fitting to hear Dr. Cornell West speak up for the value of long-term commitment to teaching. He would know: he’s been in the profession for 35 years. Five weeks and a two year “commitment” must seem ridiculous in comparison.

It doesn’t really help TFA, Incorporated’s image that Goldman-Sachs recently announced that it would hire TFA-ers after their two year stint, with an assured salary. That pretty much cements the impression that TFA is not about long-term commitment to kids, but a resume-stuffer for college grads before they launch into their true careers (despite Time Magazine’s recent protests to the contrary).

Joining Teach For America before pursuing a career in business will provide you with the management experience and skills that will help you have a greater impact in the business world. By committing two years to teach in a low-income community, you will have an unparalleled opportunity to assume tremendous responsibility—managing a classroom of students, setting ambitious goals, and inspiring your students to meet those goals. Through this experience, alumni say that they developed invaluable communication and time-management skills that are highly transferable to a career in business.

Who exactly benefits from TFA? The poor kids in the schools where TFA recuits try out teaching for a while? Or the TFA-ers themselves who get paid, trained, and handed jobs once they’ve done their two years? — sp.


SIDEBAR II: The myth of the plague of bad teachers

With all their obsessive focus on teacher “effectiveness” and “teacher quality” the ed reformers would have us all think that there was a plague of bad teachers in America’s public schools. But that is not true.

According to Stephen Fink, the executive director of the University of Washington’s Center for Educational Leadership, very few teachers are actually “ineffective.” From a Feb. 10 Seattle Times article about a program by the University of Washington’s Center for Educational Leadership, “Classroom tours aim to find great teaching,” by Linda Shaw:

“As they talk, the school leaders refer to two dense pages from Fink and his associates — a summary of years of research into what constitutes high-quality teaching.

Too much of the conversation about improving schools, Fink says later, centers on how to get rid of ineffective teachers or reward great ones. The reality, he says, is that few teachers are truly ineffective — or completely effective. The vast majority, he says, are working hard to the best of their ability.

The more important challenge, in his view, is to help the vast majority of teachers get better.” — Seattle Times


— Sue p.