Op-Ed: Appreciate teachers by retaining them

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By Gene Budig and Alan Heaps 
(For The Charleston Gazette)

Earlier this month, the nation celebrated National Teacher Day and Teacher Appreciation Week.

We would be wise to support teachers in any way we can. In an increasingly competitive, technological and connected world, our individual and collective welfare depends on education. And education depends on teachers. According to a Rand Corporation study, “when it comes to student performance on reading and math tests, a teacher is estimated to have two to three times the impact of any other school factor.”

So how are teachers doing? There’s good news and bad news.

The good news:

| Teachers like their jobs. A 2013 Scholastic/Gates Foundation report tells us that 89 percent of teachers are satisfied with their jobs. This holds true across years of teaching and community family household income.

| The public appreciates teachers. A PDK/Gallup poll tells us that 72 percent have trust and confidence in our public school teachers.

The bad news:

| The high satisfaction numbers are declining. A 2013 MetLife poll tells us that there has been a big drop in the percent of teachers “very satisfied” with their jobs. It has gone from 62 percent in 2008 to 39 percent in 2012. That’s the lowest in 25 years.

| Attrition rates are very high. Almost half the teachers leave within the first five years. That is a 50 percent increase in the last 15 years. And some schools are hit particularly hard. For example, the average annual attrition rate is 17 percent but in urban schools it is over 20 percent.

These data raise two questions.

The first question is whether we should be concerned about high teacher attrition rates? The answer is a resounding “yes.” They impact student learning and add costs to already strained budgets.

A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research states that “students in grade-levels with higher (teacher) turnover score lower in both ELA and math and this effect is particularly strong in schools with more low-performing and black students.” A report by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future estimates that school districts spent at least $7.2 billion a year on teacher turnover.

The second is question is how to reconcile these two seemingly opposing data points: if teachers like their work why are so many leaving?

There has been considerable research in this area and it clearly tells us that no one obstacle is the primary cause of teacher attrition. Instead, it tells us that we have created a veritable obstacle course for teachers. This includes decreasing job security, low wages, shifting demands, lack of respect, exclusion from the decision-making process, and poor working conditions (e.g. no classroom support, testing pressure and poor school leadership).

But rays of hope exist. Throughout the nation there are examples of teachers who receive the kinds of supports required for success. If all our students are to receive the education they need and deserve, we must bring these efforts to scale.

This will require a three-pronged strategy. One, the school reform debate must shift from testing and accountability to teacher centered supports. Two, teachers must be given a prominent role in the debates on how to improve our schools. Three, a coalition of federal, state and local officials must successfully resolve the tough issues of salary, classroom support and job security.

In its simplest form, the teacher issue can be described as follows: if we want a stable and productive society we need stable and productive students and if we want stable and productive students we need stable and productive teachers. Unfortunately, this chain is being disrupted by rising teacher attrition rates and falling job satisfaction rates.

Mark Twain said that to succeed in life you need two things: ignorance and confidence. In the 21st century, to succeed in life you need two things, education and confidence. No one can achieve this without good teachers.

Gene Budig is past president/chancellor of Illinois State University, West Virginia University and the University of Kansas and of Major League Baseball’s American League. Alan Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board in New York City.