There Isn’t Really a Mass Exodus of Good Teachers

There Isn’t Really a Mass Exodus of Good Teachers
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In this Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014 photo, teacher Joy Burke surprises her students with homemade cookies as they leave their fifth grade class at John Hay Elementary school in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

RCEd Commentary

“All the best teachers are leaving.”

There are many emotional debates in education, and the impact of teacher evaluation is near the top of the list. The above is one of the more common critiques of the new generation of teacher evaluation systems. But it is important to ground these debates in the data and information that are increasingly available, especially in places like Tennessee that have multiple years of evaluation implementation behind it.

There is no systemic evidence that all the best teachers are leaving. In fact the opposite appears to be true. More research, and more years of data, is needed before any definitive causal connection can be made but early results seem promising that evaluation is playing a positive role in keeping the best educators in the classroom for the long haul.

This narrative of a great teacher exodus comes from a variety of sources and was a common topic during my many conversations with teachers, administrators and district staff.

Sometimes these assertions come from educators who know, or know of, an admired teacher who left. I can understand how frustrating, and in many ways scary, that could be for a teacher to witness or hear about.

Many of these assertions come from the very school and district leaders who are responsible for implementing evaluation in their schools and districts.

Occasionally this narrative is explicitly pushed out by other organizations to their communities:

“The current system is clearly driving highly qualified and exceptional teachers out of the profession…”
-Tennessee Education Association newsletter January/February 2013

Great teachers leave the profession all the time and for a number of reasons. Finding ways to keep great teachers should be a central part of the strategy for states, districts, schools and other educators. If evaluation systems are causing great teachers to leave, that would be a serious problem.  

Teacher retention is ultimately a collection of many individual experiences, but those individual experiences add up to a large, complex system that requires zooming out to see how teachers are behaving across an entire school, district or state.

One of the perks of having multiple years of evaluation data to look at is that teacher retention is relatively easy to measure. This isn’t a theoretical exercise anymore and doesn’t have to be a battle of anecdotes and misinformation.

Numbers have already been crunched on teacher retention and retirement rates and the early news is good. So what is actually happening in a place like Tennessee that has been one of the more aggressive implementers of rigorous evaluation?

-- Teachers who are retiring tend to be less effective than the retirement eligible teachers who are staying in the classroom.

-- Before rigorous evaluation, this gap didn’t exist. Only after rigorous evaluation did the most effective retirement eligible teachers remain in the classroom more often than their peers.

-- Highly effective educators tend to be retained at higher rates than less effective educators, especially among educators with less experience – it will be interesting to see if this gap widens over time

-- Crucially, one of the working conditions associated with retention of highly effective teachers is functional evaluation

There are many purposes of teacher evaluation, with much of the focus correctly on evaluation’s ability to dramatically enhance the effectiveness of developing teachers and celebrating excellence. Over the long term, one of the purposes of evaluation can and should be ensuring that schools are doing whatever they can to retain their top performers, while allowing others to depart as needed. The critics are right that this should be a metric by which evaluation systems are judged and I hope the retention data evaluation systems make possible become a part of the public dialogue.

Any strategy built on high quality people needs to respect and value those high quality people and make sure they are sticking around. It just so happens that based on available evidence of real behavior by teachers, rigorous evaluation is helping to keep the best teachers with kids. 

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