The question of where Memphis should find the hundreds of new teachers it needs every year has long fueled debate over efforts to improve the city’s lowest-performing schools.
Some — including Memphis’ current education leaders — have argued that the city needs to look far and wide for students in struggling schools to have a shot at having the teachers they need. Others have argued that local schools are best served by teachers who understand what it’s like to live and learn in Memphis.
That debate got new information Tuesday with the release of Teach901’s annual survey of educators working in “priority schools,” or those where test scores put them in the bottom 5 percent statewide in 2013.
Teach901, which has gone from building buzz about Memphis to recruiting teachers on its own, surveyed nearly 1,200 teachers at 40 priority schools that have undergone changes aimed at dramatically boosting test scores. Here’s what the survey found:
1. New teachers are moving to “Teacher Town,” but most aren’t traveling far. When leaders of Shelby County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District, which includes only low-performing schools undergoing overhauls, pledged two years ago to turn Memphis into “Teacher Town,” they said the city would need to recruit teachers from afar as well as developing them closer to home.
That appears to be happening: About 150 teachers who responded to the survey said they had moved to Memphis in the last year, with the greatest numbers coming from elsewhere in Tennessee and from nearby states, including 34 from Mississippi. An outlier was California, which sent 14 new teachers to Memphis this year, according to the survey.
2. Priority schools are increasingly recruiting and hiring teachers who look like their students. Two thirds of the teachers who responded were black, up slightly since last year and substantially since the survey’s first year, when teachers at only 12 schools participated. The shift reflects a growing understanding that students and teachers both benefit when they have a shared background, according to Emily Cupples, Teach901’s coordinator.
When efforts to overhaul low-performing schools began in Memphis, “we didn’t realize as a city how intentional we should be in thinking through how teachers should be able to empathize and identify with the student,” Cupples said. Now, she said schools and charter operators are thinking about race when recruiting teachers.
3. Memphis’ teacher recruitment challenge isn’t abating any time soon. A third of teachers in priority schools say they plan to stop teaching within five years. That pace of attrition is common among schools serving high-needs students — nationally, estimates of how many teachers leave within five years range from less than 20 percent to as high as 50 percent — and suggests that Memphis’ efforts to improve struggling schools are unlikely to escape forces that have kept improvements from being sustained elsewhere.
What’s more, the report concludes, the city isn’t yet in a position to head off mass teacher departures. “Without actual attrition data … it is difficult to know the severity of this potential threat,” it says before recommending that local groups work with schools to track what happens to teachers who leave.
4. Where to find the teachers Memphis needs isn’t clear. Three quarters of new recruits answered that “the opportunity to be part of an education reform movement that is garnering national attention” was important or very important in their decision to move to the city — but they were also more likely to say that they planned to move away and to leave the teaching profession. In contrast, nearly 80 percent of teachers who graduated from the University of Memphis, the largest supplier of teachers to schools in the city, said they planned to stay in the classroom for more than five years, but they gave their preparation a below-average rating.
Teach901’s conclusions reflect an ambivalence about whether to recruit new teacher talent from afar or look closer to home. The report recommends that the city “evaluate the return on investment of attracting outside teacher talent to Memphis,” while also suggesting that it “continue to invest time and resources to brand Memphis as the place to be for those who want to be a part of the ‘mission’ of urban school reform.” Memphis Teacher Residency, an intensive training program that has increasingly worked to sell recruits on the city as well as prepare them for the classroom, best splits the difference, according to the report.