churning not learning

New research shows just how much losing a teacher midyear hurts students

PHOTO: Cyrus McCrimmon/Denver Post
Brown International Academy teacher Kate Tynan-Ridgeway works with a student.

The consequences of teacher churn were apparent to Esperanza Vazquez, a mother of two from New York City.

I had an experience with my son where he had a new teacher every week in math,” she told Chalkbeat recently. “That doesn’t help students.”

Now new research backs up Vazquez’s experience, documenting for perhaps the first time the steep consequences for students after teachers leave a classroom in middle of the school year.

The finding comes in a trio of new studies focusing on North Carolina. Together, they suggest that ill effects of teacher turnover identified in previous research may be driven largely by midyear departures; that those consequences extend even to students in the same grade whose teachers stay on; and that midyear turnover may be more common than previously thought, especially in schools serving more students of color and those from low-income families.

“While it is possible for turnover to be beneficial for school systems, an extensive body of research points to the ways that teacher turnover disrupts … the continuity of a child’s learning experiences, particularly in underserved schools,” write researchers Gary Henry of Vanderbilt and Christopher Redding of the University of Florida in one of the papers.

Henry and Redding’s three studies — two of which were published earlier this year in peer-reviewed journals, with the other is set to be published in coming weeks — home in on the rarely studied phenomenon of midyear teacher turnover.

Using recent data from North Carolina, two of the papers focus on the prevalence of the phenomenon. Annually 4.6 percent of teachers in the state departed midyear; among teachers in their first three years the rate jumped to 6 percent. The number was higher in schools deemed “underserved,” meaning they had more students of color and students in poverty, as well as lower test scores and fewer resources. Turnover was lower when principals were rated as more effective by teachers. It was higher among teachers who were less effective, those eligible for retirement benefits, and high school and middle school teachers.

Roughly a quarter of all teacher turnover in the state occurred in the middle of the school year.

The third study uses data from 2008 to 2014 to examine the consequences of midyear teacher attrition on elementary and middle school students’ test scores. In both math and English, students saw drops in learning as a result, controlling for a number of other factors. The decline in math scores was nearly as large as the difference in performance between an average teacher and an excellent one — a difference that has motivated dramatic policy changes in many places.

Impacts were smaller in English and in middle school, but also consistently negative. Students in the same grade level, but not class, of teachers were also harmed, but again less so.

The negative results are consistent with research on the effects of hiring teachers after the school year starts, in some ways a mirror image of the phenomenon.

The paper suggests three things that might explain the results: disruption in classrooms where teachers leave, instability in a school where teachers are exiting midyear, and less effective teachers replacing those who depart. The study suggests the first two theories seem to be clearly at play, since it was relatively ineffective teachers who were particularly likely to leave.

“When multiple teachers exit a school during the year, it can become increasingly difficult for teachers to maintain a work environment with a high degree of collaboration,” the researchers say.

The study did reach some surprising results: Students of color, students in poverty and students with lower prior test scores, generally did not suffer more as a result of midyear turnover; if anything, they suffered less in English. It may be that their schools were better prepared for midyear exits since they happen more frequently; it could also be that those students were simply “not well served by the teacher who departed,” the paper hypothesizes.

Another counterintuitive result: Unlike midyear turnover, departure of teachers at the end of the school year did not lead to declines in student learning, and even led to small benefits in some cases. That’s surprising in light of past research — and conventional wisdom — suggesting that teacher turnover harms students. (Prior studies generally have not distinguished between midyear and end-of-year turnover.)

The latest research does come with a key caveat: Test scores might be lower in classes where teachers leave midyear for other reasons — perhaps a particularly disruptive class causes both a teacher to quit and students to learn less in school. The authors attempt to account for this by comparing how the same student did in years when their teacher does not turnover.

The studies also look at just a single state, so it’s unclear whether the results would look similar elsewhere.

The researchers point out that some churn is inevitable, even healthy. “Many of the personal factors driving within-year teacher turnover are unlikely to be amenable to change: a teacher takes time in the middle of the school year for parental leave; a veteran teacher retires midyear; a beginning teacher leaves a few months into the school year after realizing teaching is a poor occupational fit,” write Henry and Redding. Indeed, female teachers between the ages of 26 and 40 years old were particularly likely to exit mid-year, indicating that parental leave plays a significant role in the results.

But the studies collectively conclude that students could benefit from combating midyear departures — although the best way to do that is not clear.

In Detroit, some schools have adopted a crude — and some would say cruel — approach, imposing financial penalties for teachers who left midyear. Studies focusing on turnover in general have found that higher pay, better working conditions, and more effective principals can make a difference.

At the same, time Henry and Redding argue that policymakers ought to make extensive efforts to avoid midyear teacher turnover when possible. For instance, they point out that information from teacher evaluation systems, including “value-added” test scores measures, aren’t always available until after the school year has begun. Finalizing those results before classes are underway could decrease midyear exits, they speculate.

“All measures of teachers’ performance, including their value-added scores, should be provided during the summer to allow teachers and administrators to attend to employment decisions without disrupting classes that have already begun,” the researchers conclude.

First Person

We work at Denver’s Title I schools, too. Here’s why we’re ready to strike.

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Students in kindergarten on the first day of school at McGlone Academy.

We are a group of teachers representing schools in the far northeast region of Denver. Many of us now receive “incentives” for working at Title I schools where many students live in poverty — and we are also willing to strike in support of the union’s proposed salary structure, which moves some of the money used for those incentives into long-term base pay.

Why? In short, we would rather have our base pay prioritized than earn bonuses that are not reliable, may not be working, and may also take the pressure off the district to solve systemic problems our schools face.

Issue #1: The current bonuses can’t be relied on. The “hard to serve” school label is based on free and reduced-price lunch percentages, which vary on an annual basis. Teachers at Marie L. Greenwood Academy, for example, could lose their “hard to serve” label because their school dropped just barely below the threshold. Additionally, John Amesse Elementary School and McGlone Academy are less than two miles apart, serve similar populations, and are a part of the same network; however, due to ambiguous calculations based on test scores, free and reduced-price lunch numbers, and teacher turnover rates, McGlone teachers receive larger bonuses than John Amesse teachers. This is not fair nor equitable. Teachers need money they can depend on.

Issue #2: It’s not clear that the current bonuses are working. We have not seen conclusive evidence that the incentives we receive for working in hard to serve schools have affected teacher retention or recruitment. Every year, schools in our area are hiring for positions that often get filled by first-year teachers. Many of the schools that receive these incentives still suffer from the same high turnover rates the bonuses were meant to remedy.

Issue #3: The current bonuses let the district off the hook. Some have argued that teachers in Title I schools deserve significant bonuses because the challenges faced in our work are difficult and taxing. However, many of these issues are due to systemic problems that the district would be better off trying to solve directly.

We know that increasing incentive pay to work at “hard to serve” schools will not fix the issues around segregation in Denver Public Schools. Increasing incentive pay to work at “hard to serve” schools will not fix the issues around some schools lacking nurses, social workers, counselors, support for Spanish speaking and emerging bilingual students, and support for special education programs. It will not solve issues around the lack of reliable technology, funding for arts, comprehensive neighborhood schools, or the flood of issues that we all feel in our schools on a daily basis.

We support the union’s proposal because we want the decisions we make as educators to stem from a love of our schools, a desire to serve our students, and a hope to support our community. We want teachers to seek out and stay at our schools because they believe in our vision, our mission, our students, and our community.

We are also passionate about a clear and transparent pay schedule. We want that structure to recognize our dedication to the field and our commitment to furthering our education – not a system that provides one-time bonuses that are in our checks one year and absent the next due to circumstances outside our control.

Anyone who enters our classrooms will see that we are doing our best with the resources we have in order to lift up the students in Denver who are most impacted by systemic racism and poverty. Let us come together on this idea: Fair pay for teachers means better outcomes for students. If we can stand together on this, then we can help improve the lives of so many more students, teachers, and families.

This piece was written by Jessica Schneider, Noel Community Arts School; Tanessa Bass, John H. Amesse Elementary; Rebecca Roberts, John H. Amesse Elementary; Valerie Henderson, Sandra Todd Williams Academy; Brian Weaver, Florida Pitt Waller ECE-8; Michelle Garrison, Farrell B. Howell ECE-8; Michael Sitkin, DCIS @ Montbello; Cory Montrieul, DCIS @ Montbello; and Nik Arnoldi, Escalante-Biggs Academy.

Last minute

Teachers union continues voting on possible Denver strike

PHOTO: Michael Ciaglo/Special to the Denver Post
Eagleton Elementary School first grade teacher Valerie Lovato, left, and East High School French teacher Tiffany Choi hold up signs as the Denver teachers union negotiates with district officials.

Denver teachers resumed voting Tuesday evening on whether to go on strike, a decision that will touch tens of thousands of people in Colorado’s largest school district.

The vote comes after months of negotiations left Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association still $8 million apart and with serious philosophical disagreements about how teacher compensation should be structured. Denver teachers are riding a wave of activism by their peers across the country that began last year and continues to build. Teachers in Los Angeles just reached a tentative deal with their district after more than a week on strike.

Members of the teachers union began voting on a strike Saturday. A final round of voting began at 4 p.m. Tuesday and will end at 9 p.m. Union officials said Tuesday evening that results would be announced at 9:30 p.m.  

On Tuesday evening, a steady stream of teachers bundled against the cold made their way into a Knights of Columbus Hall in downtown Denver where the last voting session is taking place.

Maria Cruz, an early childhood education teacher for the past two years who previously worked as a paraprofessional in the district, said she voted “yes” to strike hoping it will push the district to close the gap between its offer and what the union is seeking.  

“Teachers come and go and come and go and they never stay because there is not enough pay,” she said. “It doesn’t validate the teaching profession.”

The earliest a strike could start would be Jan. 28. On Tuesday evening, district families received a robocall from Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova making clear that classes would go on as normal on Wednesday, and that district officials intend to keep schools open for the foreseeable future.   

Cordova has said she’ll ask for state intervention if the vote is yes, which could delay a strike. If teachers do walk out, the district intends to keep schools open and students learning by relying on substitutes, tapping central office staff with past teaching experience, and using pre-packaged lessons plans for every grade and subject area. 

A Denver strike would affect roughly 71,000 students in district-run schools.

District officials went on the offensive over the weekend, making the argument that their offer was generous and responsive to longstanding teacher complaints about stagnant salaries.   

The district also published its new salary schedule online alongside the salary schedules of other Denver metro area districts.

The two sides disagree on how much new money the district should put into teacher compensation and also on how that compensation should be structured. The district has said it will not compromise on offering bonuses to teachers at high-poverty and hard-to-serve schools. The union wants smaller bonuses and more money to go into base pay.

This would be the first teacher strike in Denver in 25 years.