Teachers and Public Policy

Once, talk about schools and education policy in the U.S. took place in local classrooms and school board meetings. Today, state and federal spending plans set the agenda for district policies, rattling the education landscape and jolting the teaching profession.

In the last decade, teachers have been center stage, or some say center target, in the national debate over what’s wrong and what’s right with our public schools. The heat for many may have become too much to bear. For whatever reason, teachers leaving the profession have far outpaced their replacements. A new report released in March by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching says that the number leaving increased 41 percent between 1998 and 2008. Meanwhile, a month earlier, the National Center for Education Statistics projected the total number of new teachers expected to enter the nation’s classrooms will increase 12 percent for the 11-year period from 2011 to 2022.

The consequence is that teachers are younger, more inexperienced and a growing percentage will not stay long enough to achieve the five-year benchmark to be considered experienced. Nowhere is this more played out than in New York City, where nearly 10 percent of new teachers hired in 2011-12 quit before the year was up. “In 2007 alone, teacher turnover cost New York city $115 million,” according to The Carnegie Foundation’s report, “Beginners in the Classroom: What the Changing Demographics of Teaching Mean for Schools, Students, and Society.”

The report cited “a lack of administrative and professional support” for the growing teacher attrition rate. “A survey of 4,000 teachers by the Research Alliance for New York City schools revealed that administrators didn’t bother to encourage a majority of teachers to stay in teaching,” it stated.

The more seasoned the teacher, the more likely they were in recent years to flee the profession.

New York City teachers with six to 15 years of experience accounted for 43 percent of total teacher resignations in 2013, according to recently released research results by their union, the United Federation of Teachers. That number is up from 15 percent in 2008.

The revolving door of teachers entering and exiting the profession has hurt children and school communities, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. “The traditional practice of continually hiring new teachers does not provide a reliable solution to the staffing challenges and it undermines our efforts to improve teaching effectiveness,” the commission said. “Even as the attrition rate of new teachers steadily increases, the country continues to pursue industrial-era recruitment practices that place under prepared, inexperienced individuals alone in the classroom—often in the most challenging schools and classrooms.”

New York is atypical of the rest of the state, according to Maria Neira, vice president of the state teachers union. “Outside the city you have administrators who provide the supports younger teachers are looking for,” she said. “They’re looking for that professionalism. When they come in, they want to be part of the decision-making. They have principals who, instead of giving them the curriculum, give them time to create the curriculum.”

Neira also said many of the principals are graduates of the same programs as many of the new teachers. “You have a different type of administrator who’s coming in and is trained in the business model of top-down administration, not in collaborative supervision,” she said.

Changes outside the classroom have an impact on teacher recruitment and retention. City teachers have been without a new contract since October 2009, and their union is currently negotiating retroactive pay raises with Mayor Bill de Blasio. On the state level, teachers have been affected by what lawmakers and policy wonks have viewed as the flawed implementation of the Common Core Curriculum. In recent years, they’ve also had to deal with a new teacher evaluation system based on student test scores, a rigorous new teacher certification exam that will be implemented in May, and ongoing funding challenges connected in part to the growth of charter schools.

The series of profiles presented here provide insight into today’s teacher workforce, their path to teaching, and the challenges of working in the largest and most segregated public school system in the nation. They look at those who’ve beaten the odds and are still on the job five years or more later, as well as those just starting out with the odds stacked against them.

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