California’s teacher turnover costs money, expertise

California faces a looming teacher shortage of crisis proportions. But chronic under-funding and misplaced priorities are currently undermining the likelihood that we will succeed in our recruitment and retention efforts. As the baby boom generation retires, we will have to replace at least one third of the teaching workforce–one hundred thousand teachers–in California within the next decade.

At the same time, enrollment in teacher preparation programs is trending downwards. We need to recruit new teachers, and we need to keep them in the classroom once they’re there.

The situation is not even as bad in California as it is in some states. Here, thanks to the foresight of the Legislature and Governor Gray Davis in the 1990s, who funded the Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA) program, new teachers leave their classrooms behind at a lower rate than the national average, which is nearly fifty percent within the first five years of beginning teaching. BTSA and Peer Assessment and Review (PAR) provide much necessary support in mentoring and professional development for new teachers. As a result, the California new teacher dropout rate averages “only” 25 percent–although the rate is considerably higher in high-poverty urban schools that need dedicated young teachers the most.

What business requiring skills above the level of a fast food restaurant would tolerate a revolving door for employees like this? Just in terms of the dollars, it makes no sense. According to the New Teacher Center at UC Santa Cruz, the state loses nearly half a billion dollars each year on preventable new teacher turnover-related costs.

But the cost cannot be measured in dollars alone. Rather, it must be understood in terms of lost opportunities on both ends of the classroom equation: students’ right to a quality education, and the ability of our public schools to attract and keep good teachers.

It’s not as if we don’t know what the problems are. The four main reasons given by new teachers for leaving are lack of support, feelings of isolation, student behavior, and low salaries. There are obvious solutions for each of these complaints.

How does the governor’s proposed education budget address new teachers’ concerns and the recruitment/retention conundrum? It doesn’t. The best that can be said about the governor’s budget is that it is for the most part legal. He is, for the first time in two years, fully funding Proposition 98 requirements.

But legal funding levels are not the same as funding that is adequate to provide a quality education for every child. California’s per-pupil allotment remains mired in the lower half of states nationally. And the lack of attention to the impending teacher shortage, combined with the governor’s destructive promise of “no new taxes,” virtually guarantees that we won’t be able to address it in time.

We can’t legislate around the edges of this problem.

Stanford education professor Linda Darling Hammond notes that to fund a national “Marshall Plan for Education” would cost about $3 billion, or less than one percent of what the war in Iraq has cost thus far.

Her idea is to put funding into exemplary programs that will do the most good in recruiting and retaining excellent teachers, including “service scholarships” for teachers willing to work in high need fields or locations for several years, recruitment incentives for experienced teachers in high need schools or for teachers who take on additional responsibilities like mentoring, mentoring for all beginning teachers; teacher performance assessments that measure teaching skills–not paper and pencil tests that measure subject matter, and improved teacher prep programs that partner with ‘teaching schools’ much as some medical schools do in their communities.

These are common sense ideas. So are various other proposals that would strengthen professional development for new and veteran teachers alike. An ounce of prevention costs less than a pound of cure, especially when we can’t even be sure that the cure would be available for purchase a few years down the road.

Teaching must be attractive in order to recruit new teachers. If we don’t give current teachers the support they need, they won’t stick around. But it’s worse than that. Their own students, some of whom would normally follow in their footsteps, will understand what’s in front of their faces and be turned away from that career path before they’ve even set out.

In every generation there is a reserve of youthful optimism, idealism and desire to pitch in and help. A good teacher enjoying her or his work, day in and day out, provides the first and in many ways the best example of public service for students looking for a way to work in and for their communities. We can make that happen. All we need to do is get our priorities straight and properly fund them.

Mary Bergan is the president of the California Federation of Teachers

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