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THOMPSON: What Causes Burnout? All of the Above

Ets Debra Viadero’s new blog presents a wake-up call that should force us to stop the blame game, "... In 2007 more than half of African-American 8th graders, compared with a fifth of white 8th graders, had a teacher who left before the end of the school year? Among students poor enough to qualify for federal free-lunch programs, two-thirds had teachers who failed to finish out that year."

Viadero's source, the ETS’ "Parsing the Achievement Gap" is the un-McKinsey report - full of data illustrating the complexity of our challenges. ETS shows that 82% of Whites but only 57% of Black and 58% of low-income 4th graders attend schools where the same teachers started and ended the year. In comparison to Whites, more than twice as many low-income students, Black and Hispanic 12th graders attend schools where 6 to 10% of teachers are absent on an average day. Of course, plenty of those absences are "mental health days" by burned out teachers, but they also are the result of conditions that would defeat the most dedicated of educators, and students, and drive younger teachers from the schools. (When my school's teachers were mostly forty-somethings we had the best attendance rate in the district, but now we're nearly ten years older....)  

ETS shows the interconnectedness of conditions that produce the achievement gap.

Among teachers with less than 1% of students with limited-English proficiency, less that 1/4th have 25 students or more per class. Among teachers with more than 10 limited-English students, nearly 1/3rd have more than 25 students. The same pattern applies to teachers with more than 75% minority students; it is the teachers with the bigger challenges who often have the most students.

I bet the same pattern would apply with teachers who have more than x% of students on IEPs, more than x% of students on parole, more than x% with serious mental and physical health problems, and so forth. It is not the size of classes as much as the wide array of the toughest challenges that subject teachers to burnout.  And when schools face limits on the number of at-risk students that can be assigned to special classes (say 8 or 10), what else are they supposed to do but dump the overflow into a regular class?

I’m sure the details vary by school, but I’m curious whether it’s the French class that is most likely to get an extra dozen or more at-risk students in addition to its other students. - John Thompson


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Right on, John. The other flank of the blame game is students. It's a vicious, dysfunctional interaction. You've told the teacher story. But students too burn out. They enter school well motivated and with adequate prerequisites to be taught how to read, compute, and to achieve the other academic accomplishments that parents and citizenry would like to see. For many, it's downhill from day one. The burn out is slower, because they're little kids and are resilient The burn typically goes undetected for several years, during which maladaptive-but-effective coping patterns are being established. The matter really doesn't attract much attention until it becomes a "drop out" problem and it's viewed as a kid problem, not an instructional problem.

Solving the "drop out" problem is akin to solving the "death" problem. It's a done deal. It was caused by inadvertent toxic instruction that instructionally-insensitive tests protect rather than illuminate.

When is anyone going to call for transparent and responsible accountability on the part of anyone other than teachers, kids, and parents?

The alarm clock is striking 13, but few are noticing. While the information should be a wake up call, chances are it won't be.

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