When it comes to teaching, there is a common saying: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” This perception of the profession in the United States makes it a rather unattractive field. This might explain why public schools have been haunted by staffing problems for decades.
US schools have suffered from a continued loss of teachers. Every year, 8% of public school teachers leave the profession entirely and another 8% of them move between schools, according to Learning Policy Institute. Teachers leaving their jobs is detrimental to staff quality at schools and, ultimately, to the academic performance of students.
But why is there a high turnover rate at public schools? According to a study by Geoffrey D. Borman and N. Maritza Dowling, teachers often quit due to dissatisfaction with policies that affect how they do their jobs, low salaries and working conditions.
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In 2001, the US Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which focuses on “individual student achievement and overall school performance.” Since then, test-based accountability reform has tried to hold teachers responsible for the performance of students in exams. Under pressure to achieve proficiency benchmarks, teachers have reported experiencing burnout and test stress, leading to many quitting their jobs. In low-performing urban schools, where students tend to score lower grades, the teacher turnover rate is higher than in suburban institutions.
Low salaries, which often fail to match the cost of living in urban areas, exacerbate the problem. In Singapore, where the turnover rate is six times lower than in the United States, teacher salaries were 30% higher than the national wage average, as of 2019. In the US, this figure stood at 17%.
As a result, many low-paid teachers in the United States do part-time jobs to make ends meet. Taking on heavy school duties and a second or even third job can lead to fatigue. A tired and distracted teacher is less likely to deliver quality lessons. They may not have extra time to assist underperforming students or communicate well with parents. Such working conditions result in an inequitable distribution of teacher quality. In turn, the achievements of students who require additional assistance in their learning are affected.
The CAN Approach
The high turnover rate needs tackling. To do so, an approach that focuses on compensation, appraisal and networking (CAN) would lead to more teachers staying in the profession.
First, when teachers with marketable skills are unhappy about low salaries that do not fairly compensate for their job stress, it is natural for them to quit. The simple way to fix this is to raise teacher salaries. It is not hard to understand that teachers who are paid a meager amount and are forced to bear test performance responsibilities have intentions to resign.
It is ironic that federal and state governments call for high-quality education but are unwilling to invest in hiring high-quality teachers. The argument against doing so is that there is a lack of available funding. Yet this is not the case. The money is available but has been misplaced. As of 2017, school districts spent an average of $10,000 to $26,500 to fill vacancies left by each departing teacher. If this cash is instead invested in providing better salaries, teachers would think twice about leaving in the first place. If a tap is dripping, it is wiser to fix the problem rather than let more water go down the drain.
Second, standardized testing only partially examines the knowledge students obtain at school. Test scores are highly volatile and can be affected by a student’s socioeconomic background, English proficiency and even mood on exam days. Using the one-time performance of students is not a suitable way of measuring the quality of teaching. Holding teachers accountable for various factors that could influence grades is unfair.
A more comprehensive appraisal system for teachers is the order of the day. The current model that focuses on test scores needs to be replaced by one that also looks at other important goals. Aside from grades, education helps to equip students with social-emotional learning skills. It is essential for children to understand their own emotions, cope with negative ones and develop empathy with their teacher’s assistance. These life skills are often not tested or even measured, but they make a huge difference in a student’s future. Such an approach would better reflect the effectiveness of teaching.
Third, newly-qualified teachers have the highest turnover rate. Mentoring programs, especially those that match both experienced and novice teachers in the same subject field, are particularly important. Such programs provide networking opportunities to help new teachers integrate into school culture and acclimate to teaching protocols.
Teachers matter for a child’s education. Children spend a considerable amount of time in schools during their formative years. Teaching quality not only affects a student’s academic achievements but also heavily influences their life outcomes. It is time to stop treating teachers as high-quality cheap labor. High-quality labor is not cheap, and cheap labor is not high quality.
*[Updated on June 6, 2021, at 17:00 GMT.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.