Teacher exodus is poorly understood

Teachers are quitting their jobs at the fastest rate on record (“Teachers Quit Jobs at Highest Rate on Record,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 29).  Contrary to popular belief, low salaries are not the No. 1 reason.

According to a survey by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities that investigated unprecedented low enrollment in colleges of education, it is the lack of professional autonomy.  When coupled with constant scapegoating, teaching is seen as an undesirable career.

The long summer vacations and alleged short working days may be enough to recruit the best and the brightest to the classroom, but they are not enough to retain them.  That’s particularly the case with minority teachers who are leaving the profession the fastest. Attempts to show that teachers are fairly paid compared to other workers with similar education fail to change their minds.

The military has long understood the importance of morale.  Unless the same attention is paid in education, I expect to see an acceleration of the exodus. Unfortunately, the situation is best summed up this way: The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

10 Replies to “Teacher exodus is poorly understood”

  1. Seems to me that neither pay nor autonomy is the most important reason people leave teaching — based on discussions with teachers (anecdotal sampling), the most important reason is minor but endemic misbehavior, particularly in the low-SES/inner-city schools.

    As charters have syphoned off many of the better-behaved/more-motivated inner-city students and as school administrators (again, particularly in the inner-cities) have increasingly backed students or parents over teachers when students misbehave, teachers have increasingly faced chaotic classrooms with inadequate means of re-establishing control of the students’ behavior.

    When a classroom is chaotic, it’s impossible to teach effectively. When a classroom is chaotic, the teacher must spend much of his/her time just trying to maintain order (and usually has inadequate tools at his/her disposal with which to maintain order).

    I used to think that this minor-but-endemic misbehavior was the principal cause of poor academic outcomes in the low-SES/inner-city schools. After following ed blogs and newspaper ed columns for several years, I now think that inadequate parenting from birth through kindergarten in low-SES families is causing low-SES students to start kindergarten far below “grade level”; that these students fall further behind each year; that these students find academic work to be hard/frustrating; that they turn to minor misbehavior to relieve the frustration/gain peer approval; that in schools where there are many such students, the misbehavior becomes endemic; and that the endemic misbehavior creates a chaos that prevents even the best teachers from remedying the low-SES students underlying below-grade-level natural abilities.

    Of course, the minor-but-endemic misbehavior is hell on the teachers and that, I think, is the main reason that so many teachers are leaving the profession.

    If this analysis is correct, I would expect to see turnover much higher in the low-SES/inner-city schools than in the high-SES/suburban schools where there is much less misbehavior generally and there is rarely endemic misbehavior.


  2. Labor Lawyer: Although teacher turnover is higher in schools with students from chaotic backgrounds, it is not limited to those schools alone. Teachers in suburban schools also become disaffected when they are repeatedly vilified. Combat pay to attract teachers in dangerous schools with disruptive students has not worked because teachers want to teach – not to be police.


  3. Labor Lawyer is correct in identifying inadequate parenting from birth to Kindergarten as the best explanation for low-SES misbehavior and poor academic outcomes.

    Or, at least, the best politically-acceptable explanation for the last 50 years.

    Not every baby inherits equal intellectual potential. How much can social and environmental factors compensate for a range of inherent abilities? Is inadequate parenting a function of inherent ability?

    Educational policies, with the best of intentions, fail, because it’s hard to balance effectiveness with equity. Parents and taxpayers demand equal outcomes despite unequal student abilities, forcing educators to choose: submit to daily abuse, public criticism, and impossible standards, or quit.

    A teaching career is no longer a compelling option for talented people. Even if striking LAUSD teachers were to get everything they bargain for — raises, class size limits, fewer charter schools — funded by some miraculous new source of billions, their classroom conditions will remain the same, and the fancy new Dashboard school report cards will be hard-pressed to obscure the chronic endemic problems of California’s public schools.

    My occasional Ed Hed comments reflect a consistent theme: demographics and economics. I hope they make some small contribution to the blog’s civil yet incisive posts. Walt Gardner and his devoted subscriber, Labor Lawyer, are distinctly superior to most all education Websites because they are independent and secure from concerns about being fired or antagonizing their advertisers or grant underwriters. Thanks.


    1. Lancer to Bruin — Unfortunately, inadequate parenting is almost as politically unacceptable as inadequate genetics as an explanation for low-SES misbehavior and poor academic outcomes. This is unfortunate because, while govt policies probably cannot do much to improve low-SES genetics, govt policies could do a lot to improve low-SES parenting.

      Genetics must play some role, but how large a role is impossible to quantify. There are just not enough identical twins separated at birth and raised by parents of different SES levels + there will always be a few low-SES families that, against the odds, do a great job of parenting and a few high-SES families that screw parenting up badly so we would need a lot of identical-twins-separated-at-birth examples to reach any reliable conclusions.

      Speaking anecdotally based on the experiences of higher-SES friends who adopted low-SES babies soon after birth, those babies ultimately performed academically at the level one would expect of children raised in higher-SES families.


  4. Lancer to Bruin: It is unrealistic to demand equal outcomes when students differ so widely in their aptitude. Genetics, coupled with environment, play a far greater role in outcomes than teachers. I’ve long believed that refusal to accept this truism is the cause of the disaffection with public education in this country. I greatly appreciate you kind comment about my blog. I try to see both sides of every educational issue before weighing in.


  5. Labor Lawyer: Advising adults to avoid having children that they are not prepared to raise properly is the third rail for politicians. No one wants to go near it for fear of being called a racist. Ad long as that prevails, I see little hope. Yes, some children manage to overcome their backgrounds and excel in school and beyond, but they are outliers. So-called miracles of some charter schools are the result of their ability to dis-enroll those who are too hard to teach.


    1. Walt — In referring to govt policies to improve low-SES parenting, I was not arguing for govt policies deterring low-SES adults from having children — although it would be wonderfully productive if govt policies strongly discouraged anyone (any SES level) under X age (18, 21?) from having a baby. What I was arguing for are govt policies focused on the low-SES families to improve prenatal maternal health/nutrition, infant/toddler health/nutrition, and — most importantly — the quantity/quality of adult-child verbal interaction from birth through kindergarten (could be accomplished via parenting classes, preschools devoted to this verbal interaction, or preferably both). The idea would be to implement these govt policies so that many more of the low-SES kids would start kindergarten with higher-SES vocabulary size, cognitive skills and neural development. In other words, I’m arguing that many/most of the low-SES students start kindergarten far below “grade level” in these critical areas and that these deficiencies predispose these low-SES students to academic failure. Hopefully, govt intervention along the lines I’m suggesting could alleviate much of these deficiencies and, while it is politically dangerous for elected officials to say low-SES families need special help, it’s not as politically dangerous as saying that low-SES children are genetically inferior.


  6. I’m honored to get responses from both of you.

    It’s difficult to publicly discuss the most profound educational issues because scientific findings increasingly transgress political and cultural red lines, over which even the most delicately-phrased euphemisms are disallowed.

    Hence “low-SES” and “inherent abilities.”

    I also have anecdotal experience with high-SES family members who adopted low-SES children, as a pre-teen and as a baby. One became a teacher and successful parent, the other’s a Cal PhD. As the saying goes, parents are the first teachers.

    “Genetics must play some role, but how large a role is impossible to quantify.”

    One more encoded allusion: science makes frequent use of statistical graphs suggesting patterns, probababilities and predictions. A couple decades ago a book came out that shed light on the relevance of Gaussian distributions to educational and economic outcomes. The social and political reaction has since served as a warning to anyone risking their career and personal solvency to further explore any connection between “intellectual potential” and success in educational and economic environments which strongly favor smart people.

    The ostensible subject at hand is teacher retention, but this mostly a reflects the conditions created by students who are unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with abstract concepts and conscientious work habits.

    It’s better to know the truth, and Ed Hed is an honest resource for information.


    1. The hostile reaction to “Bell Curve” (think that was the name) certainly discourages rational discussion of these topics. However, in my opinion, it’s at least possible that, while the distribution curves for academic and economic success suggest that some populations are genetically inferior to other populations, the more important cause of the distribution curves is birth-through-kindergarten parenting deficiencies among those low-achieving populations. If so, that could be modified by govt policies.


  7. Labor Lawyer and Lancer to Bruin: We all want students to receive the best education possible. But we also know that teachers alone cannot do the job. So much depends on factors outside the classroom. However, I’m not so sure that low-income families whose children tend to perform below their peers would welcome intervention in how they raise their offspring. The best intentions often have unintended consequences.


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