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Thompson: What's Wrong (And Right) About "Smart Retention"

Teacher-articlelarge1What do you call a  52-page study "study" of teacher attrition that devotes three sentences to the effects of disruptive  behavior, violence, and trauma, and does not mention abusive management, top-down instructional micromanaging, and the scapegoating of teachers? The answer, of course is the TNTP's The Irreplaceables.  

Here's a sample.  The TNTP concludes that, "Focusing on smart retention can help schools quickly and dramatically improve the quality of teaching they provide to their students, which is the key to boosting student learning."  And even better, one dose of "smart retention" would be enough to permanently transform underperforming schools because,  "As uncomfortable as it might be to dismiss or counsel out a large number of experienced low performers, it’s something that districts should only have to do once on a large scale if coupled with more rigorous standards for hiring and tenure."

Wow.  The political interest group, formerly known as Michelle Rhee's The New Teacher Project, spins the evidence that contradicts their agenda in order to claim there is a quick fix to the structural problem of retaining the top teachers and mischaracterizes the nature of the problem.  After all, if they acknowledged the role of the deplorable conditions in low-income schools, and the morale problems that have been made worse by rampant bubble-in testing,  these “reformers” might have to confront their contribution to driving "the Irreplaceables"  out of the classroom.

That being said, TNTP doesn't get it *all* wrong.  There are some important tidbits in there, if you know where to look.

The TNTP claims that principals could retain more of their top teachers by giving them more feedback, more responsibility, and more praise. Moreover, district leaders "can survey teachers and students regularly to ensure that principals have regular, actionable information about the gaps in their schools’ culture and working conditions."  Presumably, even those conditions that are legacies of generational poverty can thus be reversed by "high expectations" and, of course, more data-driven accountability. But, I have news for the TNTP.  Lousy school cultures are a result of political and economic realities, and they cannot be changed so easily.

 The TNTP's "smart retention" panacea is based on the estimate that schools lose their top and bottom performers at roughly equal rates. According to Matt DiCarlo at the Shanker Blog, however, their estimates are so iffy that the so-called Irreplaceables are identifiable only as being “probably above average.”  Conversely, the TNTP has little evidence that the bottom performers are actually less effective.  They have lower value-added (based mostly on one year of scores), meaning that they may or may not be as good of teachers as their counterparts with higher value-added. According to their own research, 14% of teachers in schools with average student proficiency levels are the bottom performers.  By contrast, in a cluster of 10 low-achieving schools, 19% of teachers had low value-added.  The TNTP just assumes that it was ineffective teaching, as opposed to ineffective schools, that caused that disparity.

It is no surprise that the TNTP discovered that exiting teachers is the answer.  Ineffective teachers supposedly remain in classrooms because "Onerous dismissal processes in urban school districts [that] have been well documented."  Their documentation was an LA Weekly article and Steven Brill's “The Rubber Room.”

On the other hand, the TNTP "found that most principals continue their hands-off approach to retention (and not exiting of teachers) even after policy barriers disappear." Moreover, "principals are capable of ushering low performers out simply by being candid with them about their performance and fit in the school." 

I wonder about the TNTP's vision of human nature.  If is so easy to turnaround failing schools, how do they explain principals' collective failure to protect students from bad teaching?  If it is simply an issue of acting on the information gained from surveys, why do they not do so?

My experience conforms with research that explains why it is far more difficult to find qualified applicants who are willing to brave the challenges of the tougher schools. In my experience, bad teachers (as opposed to those who don't reach value-added targets) are easy to identify.  In my schools, most, who were not "counseled out" of the profession, were in classrooms where their predecessor had been out of his depth, and followed a previous incompetent, because principals had to choose between the "warm bodies" who applied.  My school was extreme, but even the TNTP acknowledges that when a top teacher leaves a low- performing school, there is only a one in eleven chance of finding an equally qualified replacement.  Why would they think the odds would be better when seeking replacements for troubled classes that have been made worse by a long history of overwhelmed teachers?

Similarly, everyone knows who their school’s real irreplaceables are.  When they leave, it often takes years to find replacements.  And, in my experience, these superstars rarely leave without enduring weeks of crying themselves to sleep at night and/or wrestling with their consciences. 

Leaving the classroom is excruciating, but the TNTP has one detail right.  The best teachers are often so conflicted about leaving the classroom that they might reconsider - if only management would show a little appreciation.  But with the TNTP and others keeping up the blame-the-teacher drum beat, even good principals must be forgiven for forgetting about the common decencies that are needed in the complex social organisms that are schools.- JT(@drjohnthompson via.


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As always, Dr. Thompson cuts through the think-tank obfuscation, exposes the truth, and more importantly, he puts a human face on the issues that the technocrats miss when mining data with a priori conclusions to support their political aims.

With so much of this “blame the teacher” sentiment tossed about, it’s a little too easy for the media to latch onto that. It gets viewers, because an easy answer to a complex problem is what the public wants. Thank you for reminding us.

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