Guest blog: Paul Friedmann on teacher retention

Teacher turnover is often in the news. Here was a study authored by some charter teachers for Teach Plus. And here is a look at the situation in districts by TNTP.

I asked Paul Friedmann*, who comments on this blog as MathTeacher, to share some thoughts with me about teacher retention from a personal perspective.

Q: You've taught 9 years. You're dad to 2 kids. How does it look these days?

A: While there are many benefits to teaching in a charter school, it is also harder because of the longer hours, higher expectations to achieve results, and lower job security. Early career teachers are encouraged to work long hours to make sure that they do right by their kids. They accept this because of the results they see in their classrooms and because they don’t have many commitments outside of school (such as spouses and children).

Veteran teachers often have more life responsibilities and so may not be able to commit as much time outside of school.

Q: What do veteran teachers provide in the no excuses charter school context?

A: They know which ideas have been tried before, and to what effect.

They understand content in a way that new teachers rarely do – where students will get hung up and where their misconceptions will lie.

Veterans can anchor a team filled with new teachers. This is particularly helpful in setting management norms for kids and also for building culture.

They also provide stability for students. There is something intangible about students being able to check in with their old teachers and also knowing that their old teachers are keeping an eye on them from afar. When they teach siblings or cousins, they get a leg up on building relationships with that student’s family.

Longer term perspective. Sometimes, it may be worth it to subsume some short-term results for better long-term results. For example, with incoming 5th or 6th graders, it might be wise to spend half or more of the year in math on rebuilding the number sense that the student are probably missing from elementary school even if it may means the class won’t get to some MCAS standards that year. Or it might mean teaching students how to write expository essays in addition to personal narrative even though the MCAS only focuses on the latter.

Q: What are low-cost ways to increase teacher retention?

A: Sometimes it’s the little things. I can think of one outstanding former teacher who would have bypassed graduate school if she had been told she was great and should keep on teaching.

Schools need to continue to develop their veteran teachers. Because of the high turnover rates among staff from year to year, professional development has to cycle pretty regularly to make sure all staff is on the same page. Veteran teachers are expected to provide leadership in these trainings (and of course continue to learn from them and hone their skills). However, there might be a benefit to differentiating some trainings to focus on the skills of teachers who no longer struggle with classroom management and basic lesson planning.

Q: What are the expensive ways to retain veteran teachers?

A: Build in flexible scheduling so that they can continue to do the job while starting a family.

Perks, like on-site child care or fitness, can also help.

Schools that want to hold onto veteran teachers need to look carefully at salary structures to make sure that they are competitive with other opportunities available to experienced educators.

Q: Tell us about your 3-year-contract idea.

A: Look, I understand the problems with tenure. I had a number of tenured teachers who were dead from the neck up when I was in school. However, I also recall an amazing veteran tenured English teacher who was paid off to retire a few years early because our school district was trying to cut costs.

Veteran teachers face a different set of life pressures than younger ones. If I had been a lousy teacher in my first year and had been let go, I would have had to worry about paying the rent and buying food for myself. If I were to lose my job now, I would have to worry about mortgage payments and feeding my kids. That’s a lot more stressful.

Perhaps the “anti-tenure” job security measure looks something like this: After 5 years of 1-year contracts with satisfactory performance, teachers have the option of signing 3-year contracts instead. The corollary would be that after the first two years of results, the school tells the teacher whether the chance that he or she will be asked back after the third year is high, medium or low.

This would give a veteran teacher a chance to plan for a career change if need be. It would also allow a successful teacher facing a new challenge at home (whether a new baby, sick spouse, adoptive child, or nasty divorce) or perhaps a more challenging group of students at school , to not feel the overwhelming pressure of having an off year.


I like Paul's ideas.

I've thought of trying to create a charter that would be designed with some of these ideas in mind.

I.e., what would a No Excuses charter school look like if

-Proven teachers had 3 year deals.

-Compensation was akin to IBM "Senior Scientists" -- paid well to do the "in the trenches work," rather than being led to earn more in management.

-Teachers were kind of kicked out the door in some friendly way at 5pm, with laptops confiscated, so they couldn't take work home?

There's real cost to kids here, no question. It's not like the work that teachers do nights and weekends is silly or pointless. It's valuable.

There's a real cash cost, too. Budgets are squeezed in a million ways. Pay higher wages and you obviously have larger class sizes and/or less of "everything" else -- books, classroom libraries, student trips, counselors, aides, extra-curriculars, etc.

[Public schools can't invest the way a private school would. A private school, or a university, might consider the following:

If we attract and retain better teachers with an investment of $X, it will pay off. We can charge higher tuition, and alumni giving will rise as well. Our projection is this investment in will return $2X.

But the state pays the exact same per-pupil "price" to charter schools, irrespective of performance. And our alums don't tend to be donors.]

So where does that leave us?

Ray and I have been playing around with how to staff the Match Next charter we're working on. I.e., fewer, higher paid veteran teachers built into the design, with their jobs sculpted so that they can really stay for 10++ years happily.

Essentially they'd cross-subsidized by novice, lower-paid and harder-working residents, and with education technology.

It's not an easy puzzle!

I know of some such efforts in charter world that have quietly fizzled. Teacher load was cut, student performance fell, but teacher retention didn't budge.

Finally, there's another failure here.

Some thoughts here.

The fact that ed research is so much worse than med research affects all kinds of things in K-12.

One result is this: because researchers don't value teacher time, they a) rarely find ways to get the same result with less teacher effort, and b) often advise teachers to do things which will take more time, without taking into account all the other things on a teacher's plate. Bad job, scholars. As a result, many teachers sound like this guy, unable to imagine a long run in the classroom.

*Paul mentioned that 20% of his answers come from his wife, Allison, who's also a teacher. I'm not sure which 20%. Undoubtedly the wisest 20%.