The Revolving Door of Teachers In Chicago

Monday, June 29, 2009
The Consortium for Chicago School Research today released an informative study ("The Schools Teachers Leave") of teacher turnover in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). It reviewed the personnel records of approximately 35,000 public school teachers in 538 elementary schools and 118 high schools over a five-year period between the 2002-03 and 2006-07 school years. Its primary finding is that half of all Chicago public school teachers had left their school within four years -- and more than two thirds of new teachers had. It also identified 100 CPS schools with "chronically" high teacher turnover -- losing about a quarter of their teachers annually. While these statistics are slightly worse than Illinois as a state and the nation as a whole, CPS is not a huge outlier with regard to teacher mobility. It is a problem across the board.

From an equity standpoint, teacher mobility and turnover is a particular chllaenge for schools within urban districts like CPS because of the student population they serve. Turnover has significant implications for educational equity because schools with large percentages of African-American and low-income students are more likely to be inflicted with this revolving door of teachers. These students in greatest need of access to quality education and quality teaching are the least likely to receive it. They are more likely be taught by beginning teachers and those without full credentials or relevant subject matter knowledge. This lack of educator quality feeds low student achievement, socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps, and dropout rates.

The Consortium reports offers some guidance about what relatively successful schools look like. It identifies teacher working conditions as a major factor in retention and in developing a nurturing and collaborative professional environment.
The schools that retain their teachers at high rates are those with a strong sense of collaboration among teachers and the principal. Teachers are likely to stay in schools where they view their colleagues as partners with them in the work of improving the whole school. They are likely to leave schools where colleagues are resistant to school-wide initiatives and where teachers’ efforts stop at their own classroom door. Teachers stay in schools with inclusive leadership,
where they feel they have influence over their work environment and they trust their principal as an instructional leader.

Thus, teachers stay in schools where the conditions are well suited for them to have the potential to be effective—where their colleagues are collaborators, school administration is supportive, parents trust teachers to do their jobs, and the learning climate for students is safe and non-disruptive. These elements of school working conditions are among the key elements needed to improve student achievement, along with a school-wide focus on improving instruction.
To address this teacher quality problem, one solution that new CPS CEO Ron Huberman has announced is to expand the new teacher induction and mentoring work of the Chicago New Teacher Center throughout the district. (Disclosure: I work for the New Teacher Center, the CNTC's parent organization.) CNTC is currently active in five CPS Instructional Areas, mostly on Chicago's South Side. Its intensive mentoring work -- and high-quality induction overall -- has been shown not only to increase teacher retention, but also to help beginning teachers become more effective in the classroom. The work of the CNTC was recently profiled in the Center for American Progress report, Ensuring Effective Teachers for All Students.

This kind of data analysis is exactly what all states and school districts should be engaged in. It's hard to fix a problem that isn't understood and it's hard to set a policy goal to address something that isn't quantifiable. More often than not, the reason this type of analysis isn't occurring is due to the lack of political will and the unwillingness to grapple with bad news, rather than the absence of data systems or human talent to conduct it. Where there's a will, there's a way. Without naming names, I've seen a 'can't do' attitude triumph again and again in states and districts. It's best to take this work out of the direct control of politicians and educational leaders who serve systems over kids. Perhaps that's why this effort ("Education Week: Chicago Group Promotes Links for Districts, Researchers") to replicate the Chicago Consortium model is a promising one. And, in this case, kudos to CPS leaders for being open to this scrutiny and their willingness to learn from it.

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