Beside the Point: Failing Our Teachers

Why won't we fund our schools?

Like half of Austin homeowners, I have a constant stream of contractors coming through my house. This week, the big job was installing some storage in my garage. The contractor and his assistant turned up early – an unexpected plus – and we chatted as they started.

It turns out, he wasn't always a handyman. He taught math, but he gave it up because the pay was so lousy, and the hours so horrible. Now he makes twice the money and leaves his job behind when he goes home at night. No lesson plans, no grading, and no state and federal auditors coming around, seeing how well he assembled a shelf.

Before anyone gets up in arms, this isn't a "manual labor is beneath the intelligentsia" deal. This is about career choice.

The simple fact is that teaching is not being sold as a way to make a living. Imagine a student emerging from college with five-figure debt and a computer science degree. Or an experienced researcher, looking for a career change. Think they'll go into teaching? With salaries a fraction of what they would make in the private sector, or even elsewhere in government, of course not.

For those who do enter the classroom, the turnover rate is appalling. The most cited study on teacher retention is a 2003 paper by University of Pennsyl­­van­ia researcher Richard Ingersoll, revealing that half of all teachers quit the classroom within six years. More recent numbers from a 2015 study by the National Center for Edu­ca­tion Statistics at the Institute of Education Sciences found the number was only 17% within the first five years. Does that mean the situation is improving? Maybe, maybe not. Ingersoll's study included private school teachers, and saw that sixth year as the deal-breaker.

Whether a teacher quits teaching, or just moves to a different campus, it's still a talent loss for the school they leave. According to an Alliance for Excellent Education report in 2014, roughly 13% of all teachers either quit education or move campus every year. That situation is even worse in Austin ISD. According to Education Austin President Ken Zarifis, in recent years around 30% of district teachers leave their current campus each year, with 14% quitting teaching altogether. Last year, that 14% rose to 16%, and that worries Zarifis. When it comes to campuses, he said, "You need stability."

Moreover, not all schools see equal attrition: A 2009 report by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research found that roughly 80% of Chicago teachers stay at the same school from one year to the next, as opposed to 84% nationally. However, in schools where the majority or all of the student body was from low-income households, that 80% dropped to 75%.

Can anyone really blame teachers for quitting? The pay sucks, and demanding work conditions have been exacerbated under No Child Left Behind, and amplified in Texas by the school accountability system. Take the storage contractor again: If he was having trouble affixing a rail to an old, knotty beam, would it make any sense to give him stripped-out screws and demand he get the shelves mounted twice as fast?

Blaming the institutions and administrators is ill-founded (with one exception – the graduates of Harvard's Graduate School of Education and its Institute for Superintendents and District Leaders, who have been encouraged to embrace the toxic influence of the reform movement and to leap on the opportunity to embrace disruptive innovations at the cost of neighborhood schools. Hi, Meria Carstarphen. How's Atlanta?). They're generally just looking for ways to bail themselves out of the catastrophic underfunding pit into which they have been thrown. The blame lies with policymakers, and they are seemingly hellbent on making the situation worse.

It's not just K-12 where teachers are undervalued. Community colleges depend on adjuncts to function: Yet, after the long arguments at Austin Community College in 2013 about capping adjunct hours, due to state funding cuts the colleges can barely afford the staff they need. Moreover, in his interim charges to the state Legislature, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has instructed lawmakers to contemplate ending in-state tuition at state universities for out-of-state and international students who become teaching or research assistants: The pay for those positions is already lousy, and losing that tuition reduction will send qualified applicants elsewhere.

Pretending that this isn't about money and condition is ridiculous. Ingersoll's study found that a lack of pay and administrative support was the No. 1 reason for teachers to quit. Remember that when Patrick wants to cut public ed funding, divert cash to charters, and punish teachers more.


"Point Austin," gone fishing, will return Sept. 30.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin Independent School District, school finance, recapture, Alliance for Excellent Education, Dan Patrick

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