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High teacher turnover is hurting Michigan’s most vulnerable students

Idriss Saleh hasn’t forgotten his freshman year teachers at Universal Academy, but he’s not sure they remember him.

By the time his senior year began this fall, he had outlasted all seven of those teachers. Saleh worked hard to maintain a 3.9 GPA and applied to an ambitious list of colleges. But he worries that he isn’t ready for college coursework, thanks in part to an unrelenting drumbeat of teachers leaving his school.

“Even though I worked hard to get to where I am, I feel like I’m still at a disadvantage entering college,” he said.

Decades of research back up his concern. Frequent turnover at the front of the classroom takes a steep toll on student learning, especially in low-income communities where students most need stable schools.

The problem is especially profound in Michigan. Amid stagnant school funding and growing disillusionment among teachers, more than 1 in 6 left for another school or left the classroom entirely in the 2018-19 school year, a higher rate than the most recent available national average. This isn’t for lack of well-documented solutions: Better training and mentorship, stronger principals, and higher pay are just some of the policies that have been shown to increase teacher retention.

A Chalkbeat analysis of more than one million rows of teacher workforce data sheds new light on the extent of the teacher movement in Michigan, how many students are affected, and the toll borne by students of color and students from low-income families.

In schools with a teacher turnover rate of 30% or more, nearly three quarters of the students were from low-income families in 2018-19, the analysis found. Black students accounted for 18% of statewide enrollment but 45% of enrollment in the schools where teachers were most likely to leave.

All told, 1 in 10 Michigan students attended schools with turnover rates above 30% in 2018-19.

“It’s tragic,” said Regina Weiss, a Democratic state representative from Oak Park. “It’s not acceptable.”

Weiss left her job as a social studies teacher in Detroit after her election last fall.

“When I left in December the comments I would hear from the kids were, ‘All the teachers are leaving,’” she said. “That’s their perspective. It’s almost like a sense of abandonment.”

Why do they leave?

Teaching is a public service profession with a reputation for hard work and long hours — a profession most Americans wouldn’t want for their children. Teachers typically don’t abandon their classrooms on a whim.

Pay dissatisfaction is perhaps the single most common reason teachers leave their jobs. National polls show that teachers feel they’re underpaid, and a strong majority of Americans — more than at any point since 2008 — believe they need a raise.

“From our perspective there are a number of things that can be done about teacher turnover, but a core way is to pay teachers what they deserve to be paid,” said David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan.

In general, American teachers are paid significantly less than other professionals with a bachelor’s degree. Michigan teacher pay is slightly above the national average, though it tends to be lower in low-income communities, where many teachers leave for schools with better pay and more resources.

A widening pay gap between charter and district-run schools in Detroit has pushed many teachers to leave city charter schools for the local district, where starting teacher salaries are now among the highest in the region. In 2018-19, 6% of charter school teachers left for the district, compared with 1% of district teachers who left for charters.

Lamar Phillips is a band teacher in Detroit with a master’s degree who devotes long hours to his students. He left his last job, at Detroit Merit Charter Academy, because he didn’t feel his pay measured up to the hours he put in. He was also disillusioned, he said, because the school wasn’t providing enough funding for the band program or giving it a favorable slot on the school schedule.

He chose to move to the Detroit Public Schools Community District, which has increased teacher salaries in recent years.

“You’re talking about four, five, six, seven thousand dollars more, and there’s a union,” Phillips said.

Low pay, however, is far from the only reason teachers leave their classrooms.

Hecker pointed out that a lack of adequate school funding affects teachers in ways that aren’t captured in their paychecks. When schools have less money to spend on classroom aides and social workers, teachers get less help. Those issues were central to a national wave of teacher strikes in 2018.

Teachers’ working conditions are also crucial to their sense of success, which plays a big role in whether they leave classrooms or leave the profession altogether, studies have shown. Training quality, job security, and the condition of learning materials and school buildings all play key roles. In Detroit charter schools, school closures contribute to instability in the teaching workforce. Of the 538 teachers who left those schools in 2018-19, 50 did so because their schools closed.

Support from principals is a particularly important factor in teachers’ decisions to stay or go, numerous studies show.

Sean McCauley began his math teaching career at Old Redford Academy middle school, another Detroit charter. He eventually left because he didn’t feel supported by school leaders, who seldom stuck around long enough to build a working relationship.

McCauley can recall four principals who cycled through the school during his five years there.

Teacher turnover at Old Redford was persistently high, too — of 20 classroom teachers who began the school year in 2015, including McCauley, only two were left by the fall of 2019, according to teacher certification data obtained by Chalkbeat.

Few of the teachers who stayed were experienced enough to mentor an early-career teacher like McCauley. A few years after he started teaching, he was asked to mentor newer teachers.

That’s when he began looking for another job. He felt he was too new himself to be a mentor.

He now teaches at Berkshire Middle School in Birmingham Public Schools, which has a more stable teaching staff.

The year after he left, Old Redford received two F’s from the state for student proficiency and growth. The Old Redford school board later took over the school from the former management company and hired a new superintendent, Sabrina Claude McGahee. She said that Old Redford tries to retain teachers through “competitive salary that represents at least 80% of the Detroit area market value for teacher salaries”, retention bonuses, and “a positive climate and culture with support from administration [to] attract and retain highly qualified talent.”

A long running problem. Will the pandemic make it worse?

In recent decades, the rate of teachers leaving their schools in Michigan — roughly 20% annually — has remained several points higher than the national average.

When the pandemic shuttered Michigan schools, some education leaders predicted teacher turnover would increase.

So far, though, the opposite has occurred. While more teachers retired in recent months than usual, perhaps to avoid a return to in-person instruction, fewer teachers changed schools during the last school year than in previous years, a Chalkbeat analysis found.

The decline in turnover should not be surprising. Workers, teachers included, are less likely to leave their jobs during a recession, as research from the Great Recession showed.

But that doesn’t mean Michigan teachers won’t leave once the coronavirus recession wanes, especially given that morale plummeted during the pandemic.

“COVID … makes you feel like you’re there by yourself,” said Lincoln Stocks, a teacher at Eastpointe Community Schools and a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan. “And if you want to look out for your interests and be safe, then (some say that) you don’t give a damn about the kids. And that’s not true, but that’s how it looks. And we’ve got a lot of people who are very concerned for their safety.”

The coronavirus has disrupted many teachers’ work lives, forcing them to adopt new roles and methods — such as online instruction — for which they have little training and which bear little resemblance to the job they signed up to do.

Many teachers feel that they’re not succeeding in their jobs during the pandemic — a major predictor of whether they’ll leave the profession, according to a paper published last summer.

“All of the things that drive teachers out of the profession… are happening at extremely alarming rates right now,” said Nicole Simon, a co-author of the paper and a researcher affiliated with the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers at Harvard University. “My prediction is that we’ll see a mass exodus from teaching.”

What happens when they leave?

When teachers leave, it interrupts classroom routines and severs relationships with students, parents, and colleagues, killing the essential connective tissue that makes schools work.

“That instability, it breaks communities,” said Darrin Camilleri, a Democratic state representative who previously taught social studies at a Detroit high school with high teacher turnover.

“And community is a huge part of how you support students.”

In one study of teacher turnover, researchers followed 850,000 New York City students over eight years and concluded that students in schools where many teachers left tended to score lower on English and math tests.

The negative effects were especially strong in schools with more low-performing students and more Black students — who are most likely to attend schools with high teacher turnover.

“It’s just not possible to have a functioning school with” very high levels of turnover, said Ed Fuller, an education professor at Penn State University who helped design a teacher retention policy in Austin, Texas.

Turnover doesn’t just pose academic costs.

Researchers say finding and training new teachers is expensive, especially in hard-to-staff urban areas such as Detroit.

There is no established price tag for teacher turnover in Michigan. But an estimate made by economists in North Carolina, a state with a similar population to Michigan’s, put the cost at $337 million in a single year. That amount of money would go a long way in Michigan: It’s millions more than what Utica Community Schools, the state’s second largest district, spent in total last year.

Experts say that reducing teacher turnover statewide would likely require major new investment in schools. While Michigan’s school spending has ticked up slightly in recent years, overall its spending on schools has declined over the last two decades, adjusting for inflation. The state would need to raise an additional $3.6 billion per year for schools in order to hit adequate spending levels recommended by a nonpartisan education panel in 2018.

An overhaul of school funding, however, would require a tax increase, which would likely be dead on arrival in the current Republican-controlled state legislature.

Rep. Brad Paquette, the Republican vice chair of the House Education Committee and a former teacher, is pessimistic about the prospect of any major new funding for schools in Michigan’s current political landscape.

“We have a whole bunch of folks on the GOP side who are like, ‘Hey we’d love to give more money if we’re able to see more return on investment and more innovation in schools,’” he said. “On the left it’s like, ‘We want more investment but we don’t want to change in any way.’”

Efforts by the state to transform the lowest performing schools — known in Michigan as the “partnership program” — often run aground due to teachers leaving. Turnover is one of the “driving issues” behind the struggles of partnership schools, said Katharine Strunk, a researcher at Michigan State University who co-authored a report on the schools last year.

“You’re trying to turn around your school, maybe buying new curriculum, investing in new training and instructional techniques,” she said. “And you’re kind of wasting your money because teachers are leaving.”

A place to stay

When Idriss Saleh thinks about his freshman year, history teacher Ben Kruid stands out the most.

“That first year bond was amazing,” Saleh said. “I remember having a good time. We actually accomplished things when he taught.”

Kruid played old movies related to the subjects they were studying, and he often gave students a choice between taking tests or doing a project to demonstrate their learning. As Saleh prepares to apply to college, he wonders if in a different world Kruid might have written him a letter of recommendation.

“It would have even been nice to see him in the hallways,” Saleh said. “Even if he wasn’t teaching my class. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who feels that way.”

Kruid remembers Saleh as a “hard worker” in U.S. History 9B. The class started out slowly, hampered by behavioral issues, but Kruid says the students bought in when he began allowing them to demonstrate their learning through projects rather than tests.

High turnover throughout the school, though, made the rest of his job too chaotic to bear.

“The students, by the time they get to middle school, they’ve seen so much of it that they don’t seek a connection with their teacher, because why bother?” he said. “The teachers are just going to leave the school.”

Kruid left after one year. Two-thirds of teachers at the school left that year, too.

Kruid says he was conflicted about leaving. He had grown fond of Saleh and his peers in 9B. He wrestled with feelings of guilt. Was he abandoning them?

In the end, he decided he was being asked to do the impossible. Student behavior issues were constant, and he felt he wasn’t getting enough support from school leaders. Making matters worse, many families only spoke Arabic, but non-Arabic-speaking teachers didn’t get nearly enough translation help.

Universal Academy lost more than half of its teachers every year between 2015-16 and 2018-19. Through a spokesman, Universal Academy said its turnover rate over the last year was only 8%, and said that number should speak for itself. (That data is not yet publicly available.) The school declined to answer specific questions about conditions at the school.

The year after Kruid left the school, he found a job at an unusual new school in the Grand Rapids district. It was based in a museum and had recently received a $10 million grant for innovative schools from XQ, a high-profile philanthropic initiative.

He wants to stay for the rest of his career.

“I get support from my principal and administration when I need it,” he said.

Universal Academy hasn’t held in-person classes in more than a year due to the pandemic, but Saleh said teacher turnover hasn’t stopped.

In January, at the start of the semester, a substitute led his World Studies class for three weeks before the school hired a new teacher, a young man who was leading a classroom for the first time, Saleh said.

The new teacher was enthusiastic, but Saleh felt disengaged. He’d just been accepted to the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and as he waited for decisions from other colleges he was thinking ahead to the long hours he expects to spend in the library this fall, trying to catch up to other students who may never have lost a teacher in the middle of the year.

He thought ahead, too, to the fall of 2022, when his younger siblings will enter high school.

“It’s too late now to do anything about it for me,” he said. “But what I can do is still talk about it and try to make education better not for me, but for my siblings.”

This article was originally posted on High teacher turnover is hurting Michigan’s most vulnerable students

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