The Dropout Problem

Not students, but teachers – AISD struggles to retain qualified educators

AISD teacher Jennifer Graham had been a lawyer, but gave it 
up when she decided that some things were more 
important than money.
AISD teacher Jennifer Graham had been a lawyer, but gave it up when she decided that "some things were more important than money." (Photo By John Anderson)

Two weeks before the first day of school in the Austin Independent School District, the halls of Akins High School are clean-feeling, almost sterile, yet with an aura of expectation for the new year. Early Tuesday morning, as the marching band practiced maneuvers in tidy rows outside, 350 adults filled a dozen classrooms inside to learn about classroom management, cultural sensitivity, AISD regulations, and other subjects the new crop of AISD middle and high school teachers will need this year.

The new teachers were of all ages and races; they came from all over, for all sorts of reasons. Jennifer Graham, an elegant African-American woman of about 30, had been a lawyer, but gave it up when she decided that "some things were more important than money." Cathy Franke, a red-haired grandmother, had run a family-owned feed store before finally going to college to teach. Donald Peacock, an exuberant North Carolinian, joined because he wanted to coach football – his goal is to have a state championship ring for every finger – but thinks teaching is a fine way to give back to his community. And gray-haired Mike Owen, who spent the last 30 years programming computers, wants to inspire more young people to pursue technology careers.

In describing what brought them to the field, several of the excited new teachers used the word "calling." They described teaching as a lifelong dream, or a way to help make society a better place. By the end of this year, however, one in five of AISD's new teachers will have quit the field. After five years, nearly half will be gone.

AISD's annual turnover rate is 16%, which just about mirrors the state average. This churning has financial implications – various sources estimate that statewide, teacher attrition costs between $329 million and $2.1 billion a year in recruitment, training, and human resources costs. But just as important are its educational implications, especially because the schools with the most turnover are those with high proportions of poor and minority students. AISD's turnover rate at high-needs high schools, for example, is 32%, compared to 12% at low-needs schools. According to Ed Fuller, a professor of educational administration at the University of Texas, this creates a vicious cycle that is hard for schools to escape.

"Very inexperienced teachers are at a high risk for leaving the system, so it becomes a revolving door," he said. "That causes more problems in school, which leads to more turnover."

Teachers come for personal reasons, and they go for personal reasons. The big three, though, are pay, administrative (or administrator) hassles, and classroom management issues. In a 2003 State Board for Educator Certification study of why teachers leave the profession, 61% cited salaries, 32% mentioned poor administrative support, and 24% referred to problems with student discipline. Obviously, the three are related: For example, teachers in low-needs schools are on the same pay scale as those in the more troubled schools, but their lower turnover rate suggests they consider their wages fair compensation for the work they're being expected to do.

This year, AISD's proposed budget includes no raises for teachers. Not a cent. In its defense, the district is covering increases in health and other benefits. Still, that proposal has teachers howling, and the teacher's union accusing AISD of hiding money. The district howls back that most of its new revenue is going straight into the redistributive school finance system that the Lege has sworn to replace as soon as lawmakers figure out how. (No one is exactly holding his breath.)

The hundreds of excited new recruits at Akins show that plenty of people are still willing to brave the administrative slings and budgetary arrows of public schools for the chance to inspire young minds. Even those teachers who are leaving profess deep love for their students and their schools and for the art of teaching itself. Nevertheless, they leave. While proposals abound for little ways to address the problem, from mentoring to retention bonuses, some fear that in the absence of major reform, the age of the career teacher may simply be at an end.


'No One Teaches for the Pay'

 Julio Thomas finds that teaching has rewards, such as 
when he taught a boy whose mother would leave him alone 
for weeks at a time how to read.
Julio Thomas finds that teaching has rewards, such as when he taught a boy whose mother would leave him alone for weeks at a time how to read. (Photo By John Anderson)

This year, Dusty Burcham taught his last math class, a summer workshop designed to prepare students for their Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills tests. This fall would have been his seventh year teaching; instead, he's going into real estate. And, he's well aware that he beat the average. "That five-year mark is really true," he said.

Burcham isn't one of those people who always dreamed of teaching – he simply didn't know what else to do with his math and philosophy degrees – but once he hit the classroom, he fell in love. As the years went by, though, he found that the rewards of teaching came with costs that finally seemed too steep to bear.

For one thing, there's the pay. AISD, like many districts, has addressed the issue of teacher shortage by recruiting new teachers through relatively high starting salaries. A beginning AISD teacher earns about $35,000 – not too shabby, especially if half your friends are still working in coffee shops. But in yet another vicious cycle – the phrase comes up a lot in retention discussions – the front-loading that convinces people to give teaching a try doesn't do much to convince them to stay. As teachers age, they find their salaries simply don't keep up with those of other professions. An AISD teacher with 20 years experience earns only $45,000. The pay scale caps out at $55,000. Those numbers can look particularly paltry to math and science teachers, whose skills often demand far more on the open market. Teachers in those fields are in particularly short supply; those are also the areas where AISD students (like students nationwide) struggle most.

It's a truism that no one gets into teaching for the money. But to Burcham, that's not the real question. Instead, it's how many potentially great teachers aren't teaching because of the money, and what a real change in teacher pay scales would do to the profession. "If you increase the pay, you increase the professionalism of the people you're bringing in," he said. "You could fire bad teachers easier, and actually enforce the kind of accountability they want to impose. Right now you can be almost a scoundrel, a real lazy teacher, and still schools will want to hire you." (Burcham added that bad teachers usually don't last long in a single district, but instead bounce around among districts. And lest it be thought that AISD will hire any old scoundrel off the street, the district did choose its 700 new hires from a pool of nearly 2,000 applicants. The district also has begun searching for new teachers earlier in the spring so as to snatch up the best candidates quickly.)

Burcham isn't thinking of the kind of single-digit pay raises fought about in the AISD board auditorium, but a revolution to move teacher salaries to a scale comparable to other educated professions. The Texas Federation of Teachers has long argued that teaching lags between $10,000 and $15,000 behind comparable professions; Burcham agrees. "If I was getting paid in the 40s or 50s, I wouldn't even think about leaving the profession," he said.

Others argue that once you factor in teachers' shorter work year, their per-day rate is comparable to higher-paid professions. The lifestyle perk of summers off, however, doesn't help when it's time to pay mortgages or children's college tuition. Still, the extent to which pay really matters is an issue of perennial dispute. Emily Smith, who coordinates the teacher mentoring program at Reagan High, says the pay isn't the main reason teachers come or go. "I complain to my friends that they make twice my salary. But my friends say, 'You like your job twice as much,'" she said. Nevertheless, even Smith is moving on to get a Ph.D. in curriculum.

No one teaches for the pay – if you say it enough, it starts to be true, and teaching starts to seem like something you do for a few years as sort of a domestic Peace Corps experience. Julio Thomas, who is leaving AISD after five years, says he never intended to teach forever. "I wanted to teach for five years, give back to the community, save some money, and pay off some debt," he said. The long-term plan was always to go to grad school, which he will do this fall. He thinks he's the norm, not the exception. "Very rarely do I meet a new teacher who intends on doing it their entire life," he said.

Of course, teachers have always jumped from teaching to, say, administration in order to earn more money. And one of the features of the 21st-century job market is that people switch careers more often. Still, Paula Tyler, who began teaching in 1967, believes hers will be "the last generation to stick it out." She sees this as reflecting some positive changes – in her day, teaching was one of the few jobs open to women. But for the most part, she thinks it reflects the fact that teaching has simply become a much harder profession, while the salaries haven't kept up with its increasing requirements.

"Teaching probably compensates as well as it ever has, but the commitment level is now so high that people don't consider it a safety career," she said.


The Vicious Cycle

After 18 years of teaching, Charlie Gutierrez has just moved 
into a new position, running the mentor program at Reagan 
High.
After 18 years of teaching, Charlie Gutierrez has just moved into a new position, running the mentor program at Reagan High. (Photo By John Anderson)

Teaching is inherently hard. Think about it: You're on your feet performing all day. The harder you make it – through onerous administrative requirements, or through a particularly tough crowd in the audience – the less people are inclined to stay. A recent Texas Federation of Teachers survey found that 45% of teachers were considering quitting. Of those, 58% cited classroom management issues and 34% cited paperwork as influencing their decisions.

The discipline issue is a favorite of conservatives, who complain that fear of litigation and administrative over-regulation limit teachers' ability to punish problem behavior. "We've almost gotten to the point that for [a] teacher to discipline a child, that teacher has to take an hour from class to fill out the paperwork," said Texas Rep. Carter Casteel, a New Braunfels Republican and former teacher who earned bipartisan praise this session as a champion of public schools.

Chris Patterson, of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, agrees, but adds that the micromanagement of classroom discipline is part of a larger problem, in which schools are expected to provide a host of social services that, she believes, have little to do with education. "Schools have just grown out of their charge and have taken on a lot of responsibilities other than academic," she said.

Many who aren't particularly conservative would agree that teachers grow weary of being counselors and test administrators and of struggling with classroom discipline. (The AISD task force on teacher retention included the development of better discipline policies on its list of recommendations for improvement.) But while some would argue that school districts should just scale back from all that expensive counseling and social work, some would point out that accountability requirements – which liberals in particular tend to criticize for driving away good teachers – leave schools little choice.

In AISD, 56% of students are poor. Those students simply have more needs for things like counseling or social services, or even basics like food and clothing. When those needs interfere with students' ability to learn, schools have no choice but to try to meet them, or face consequences in the high-stakes accountability system.

That system – the TAKS tests and the complex rigmarole of benchmark testing, data-analyzing, and paperwork that it begets – is a huge source of irritation for many teachers. AISD has chosen to meet the TAKS challenge through standardized curricula called "Instructional Planning Guides" that provide detailed instructions of what is to be taught and when.

There are advantages to standardized curricula. They are a lifeline for students who frequently bounce from school to school to live with different relatives, or as their parents chase jobs or cheap rent. And in a high-turnover environment, carefully planned curricula give struggling new teachers something to work with. But as teachers get the hang of their profession, and have ideas for innovative lessons of their own, the IPGs can become a sore spot.

"At some point you're turning into a robot," Burcham said. "You go to all these planning meetings and you know exactly what you're going to teach. AISD says they want a rich curriculum and don't want to teach to the TAKS, but unfortunately that's exactly what they're doing."

Burcham isn't alone. Thomas agreed that TAKS requirements were a source of frustration, and it's a common complaint of parents as well. And AISD isn't alone – in one New Teacher Academy seminar for teachers joining AISD from other districts, an off-topic discussion of standardized curricula elicited complaints and eye-rolling galore.

Teachers certified through alternative programs have a 
higher attrition rate than those certified in traditional 
programs.<br>For a larger image click <a 
href=attrition_rates.jpg target=blank><b>here</b></a>
Teachers certified through alternative programs have a higher attrition rate than those certified in traditional programs.
For a larger image click here

Once again, it's a vicious cycle: Because so many teachers are new, AISD feels the need to provide tools and support in the form of detailed curricula and planning meetings. Experienced teachers balk at what they see as micromanagement, and eventually bolt. The revolving school door spins yet again, and AISD has another several hundred openings the following fall.


Easy Come, Easy Go

Julio Thomas distinctly remembers his first day of teaching. He had been certified through the Texas Education Agency's Region 13 alternative program, which bestowed upon him vast stacks of books and binders of theory and lesson ideas. He had two whopping weeks of classroom observation. Then, in August, he faced a room full of second-graders and realized he had no idea what to do.

"My mind went blank," he said. Stage fright wasn't the only problem. Two of his students got into a fight he had to break up, and at lunch he found himself being pummeled by a child who refused to descend from the tree he had climbed. By the end of the day, Thomas was ready to bail.

He stuck it out – Thomas credits the teacher next door with giving him the hand-holding he needed – and he's glad he did. Once he got the hang of it, Thomas found teaching had plenty of rewards, such as when he taught a boy whose mother would leave him alone for weeks at a time how to read. That child, now in middle school, still drops by Thomas' house. Still, while he praises the Region 13 program overall, he thinks beginning teachers really need more in-classroom training than he got – both to prepare them to stick it out, and for the good of their students.

"The first year you're in survival mode," he said. "I know that by my second year I was a much better teacher than in my first year, just from having the experience of being around the kids, and implementing the strategies I learned in school to see what works and what doesn't."

Would-be teachers who didn't study education in college have two basic options for making it a second career. They can re-enroll in a university certification program, or they can enroll in one of the alternative certification programs that now supply about half the teachers in Texas. The different options fit different candidates' varying needs. Mike Owen knew that after a 30-year career with computers, he'd be pretty clueless in front of a classroom. He spent a couple of years in a traditional certification program at Texas State University, which including lengthy observation and student-teaching experiences. On the other hand, Julie Taylor, who has worked as a counselor, a sports teacher, and a church youth group leader, opted for the I Teach Texas all-online certification program, which like most alternative certification programs includes only minimal observation.

Alternative certification programs have been controversial, in part because they provide even less in the way of student teaching than traditional programs – which some say is already not enough. That may be one reason why alternative-certified teachers have a higher attrition rate than teachers who go through traditional programs. After five years, 38% of alternative-certified teachers have quit, compared to 28% of teachers certified through traditional programs and 34% of those certified through post-baccalaureate work. (Another explanation may be that because alternative programs are cheaper, they appeal to candidates who never intend to stick around in the first place.)

Emily Smith at Reagan says certification programs with minimal classroom exposure are definitely not for everyone. "Some of them really struggle," she said. "They've had zero classroom experience, zero teaching experience, and their first day in the classroom is almost the first time they have encountered students."

Still, easy certification has lately been the darling of the right, including a proposal that passed through the State Board of Education last year to allow anyone with a bachelor's degree to teach in their field of expertise. Supporters of such proposals say it's the only way to fix the so-called recruitment problem. When the recruitment problem is really a retention problem, however, finding warm bodies to stand in front of blackboards looks more like a Band-Aid on a symptom, rather than a serious effort to address the cause. Teachers say that expecting anyone to be able to walk in off the street and master pedagogical skills like classroom management is both unrealistic and undermines the professionalism of their craft. It also gets them wondering about motives. Brock Gregg, of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, says that quick 'n' easy certification appeals to those whose priority is keeping public school finance costs down, because high turnover depresses overall payroll costs. "It's cheaper to have baby teachers, and that's why lots of folks want to lower certification standards," he said.

The AISD schools with the highest needs also have the 
highest proportion of novice teachers. And the 
discrepancy gets worse as kids progress through the 
system.
<br>For a larger image click <a href=low_vs_high.jpg 
target=blank><b>here</b></a>
The AISD schools with the highest needs also have the highest proportion of novice teachers. And the discrepancy gets worse as kids progress through the system.
For a larger image click here

Still, alternative certification programs are here to stay. They help AISD fill its hundreds of annual vacancies, often with candidates who bring valuable maturity to their classrooms. AISD human resources director Michael Houser said he was skeptical of the programs at first, but has come to see their advantages. Instead of focusing on where teachers come from, he says, the district's priority is helping those coming from programs with less practical training – not to mention new teachers as a whole – survive long enough to learn how to thrive.


For Love or Money

Charlie Gutierrez thought he was going to be a doctor. After two years in medical school, though, he realized he didn't like hospitals and didn't like being around sick people all the time and dropped out. After "bumming around" for a couple years, he gave teaching a try and found his calling. This year he finished 18 years with AISD, and has just moved into a new position running the mentor program at Reagan High. Sure, all the TAKS prep makes teaching a lot less fun than it used to be, and he has no idea how he'll afford college for his two boys, and his doctor brother just bought an amazing beach house on the Pacific. But it also has its rewards.

"I like being around the kids," he said. "It gives me gray hair, but it keeps me young. I love seeing when kids come back and tell me what they're doing. It really makes me feel I'm doing something worthwhile."

AISD can't double teacher salaries or cut class sizes in half to make classroom management easier. In the short term, as everyone eyes the Lege for a better school finance system, the district's main tool to increase retention is professional development and support for new teachers. Gutierrez's new position at Reagan is part of this effort, as is the New Teacher Academy. As of this year, the district provides all first- and second-year teachers with a mentor, who receives a stipend for helping them out. Reagan's Smith says efforts like mentoring may sound small, but they make a big difference. "New teachers need someone who can be on call to answer their questions, pat them on the back, tell them to come back the next day," she said.

Everyone agrees the district could do more, however. Last year the district formed a task force on teacher recruitment and compensation, which this spring reported its suggestions to the Board of Trustees. Because the issue of turnover is, for all intents and purposes, an issue of turnover in high-needs schools, the committee suggested signing bonuses in the $3,000 to $5,000 range for teachers who teach in high-needs schools for their first three years, and extending those bonuses to $5,000 a year thereafter. It also suggested a variety of nonpay initiatives, such as the attention to discipline policies mentioned above.

The issue of the raise-less budget, however, remains. Education Austin, the teachers union, argues that no matter how tight the money, the district should find money to give teachers at least a cost-of-living pay increase. At the very least, that could keep AISD teachers from moving to better-paying districts. According to the compensation task force, AISD pays better than average when compared to other central Texas districts, but not as well as other Texas cities. Just as important, though, teachers say that even a small raise signals the kind of respect they crave. The AISD Board of Trustees will decide this month whether to tweak the administration's budget proposals to offer a raise. Last year, at the administration's urging, the board approved pulling money out of the AISD savings account to cover a 5% raise. This year, citing its dwindling reserves and uncertain school finance future, the district is discouraging that option.

Instead, AISD administrators point their fingers at the Lege. Republican-led school finance bills did not put significantly more money into schools, and included market-style reforms such as allowing the hiring of administrators with no educational experience, paying teachers for performance (understood to mean their students' performance on standardized tests), and allowing private corporations to take over struggling schools. Those furthest to the right promote private school vouchers as a way to force all schools to improve through competition, which they believe will improve working conditions for all teachers.

Most Democrats and teachers groups, and a significant minority of Republicans, consider such reforms counterproductive. "It often appears that when we start reforming, particularly in education, we start to make people feel small and less professional than someone else," said Rep. Casteel, referring specifically to a proposal to strip the State Board for Educator Certification of its power. "It's important to treat teachers as professionals."

The main focus for Democrats and pro-public-education Republicans is finding ways to put more money in the system. "It's obvious that if teachers had a competitive salary that many of them would be less likely to change professions," said Bob Griggs, R-North Richland Hills, who himself was a teacher before moving into administration because it paid better. Despite competing plans being kicked around during a special legislative session that feels anything but special, most consider school finance reform dead until the Texas Supreme Court weighs in this fall on a lower court ruling in favor of the hundreds of school districts that sued the state for failing to adequately fund schools.

In the meantime, districts will have to make do with the system they have, and all of its contradictions. On the one hand, they have the long-term need to groom an experienced workforce that can inspire kids to learn, one that is highly qualified in both subject matter and teaching methods. But in the short term, money is tight and the kids have to pass the tests. That reality necessitates that more money go toward tutors, curriculum, and continued emphasis on TAKS preparation that helps drive away educators like Burcham, the soon-to-be former AISD math teacher.

Even as he leaves the district, griping about the pay and the paperwork, Burcham says he'll hold fond memories of his classroom and his students and those days when teaching felt like the greatest thing in the world. He might go back some day, he says. However, he hopes that for the good of everyone, society will find ways to address the things that made him turn his back on a profession he loved. "I love teaching," he says. "I don't want to say anything bad about teaching. I just think that from top down, society says it values education but is completely unwilling to put its money where its mouth is." end story

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 36 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle