Teacher Turnover Masks Bigger Classroom Woes

Gov. George Pataki briefly twitched the other day. A further proof that he is among the quick and has not

Gov. George Pataki briefly twitched the other day. A further proof that he is among the quick and has not yet decomposed into a clump of biomass is that, after the twitch, he asked the State Legislature to provide money for college students who promise to teach in the public schools for four years after graduation. Students would get as much as $3,400 a year.

Without a doubt, the idea recommended itself to the Governor because it is conventional, uncontroversial, ineffectual and thus in line with what other states are doing. In South Carolina, retired teachers are being asked back at full salaries plus their pensions. In Maryland, people without teacher training but with a background of specialized knowledge are being recruited. In Texas, they’re offering $4,000 signing bonuses for math and science teachers. New York City is recruiting teachers from Germany.

Bill Clinton, a politician who’s as “ert” as Mr. Pataki is inert, has been ripping around the country in his gaudy and expensive way, spewing out a number of his programettes intended to crank up more teachers. It is, after all, one of those settled areas of belief that it is only by such means that we can overcome the perpetual teacher shortage.

But now comes John Merrow, writing in Education Week , doubting that there is a teacher shortage. He says the schools are cranking out more than enough teachers and he has figures to convince any skeptic not in the teachers’ union. He believes that the nation’s schools of education are putting out 30,000 more teachers a year than there would be a need for if newly graduated teachers actually went into the classrooms and stayed there.

He writes: “[Our] nation’s 1,300 schools and colleges of education already produce more than enough teachers. But about 30 percent of those newly minted teachers don’t go into classrooms. An estimated 30 percent leave the field within five years; in cities, the exit rate is an astonishing 50 percent. Of every 100 new graduates with licenses to teach, 30 do not. Of the remaining 70, at least 21 will have left teaching within five years.” Add to that the percentage of the teacher corps that retires every year and of course you’re going to have a teacher shortage, a perpetual one.

Mr. Merrow likens the situation to filling up a bathtub that doesn’t have a stopper in the drain by trying to pour water into it faster than it empties out the bottom. Can you think of an institution with that sort of turnover in personnel that isn’t in trouble?

Every institution that has high turnover numbers is in distress. Our top military people are warning us that soldiers deciding against making the services a career and getting out after short stints are imperiling the nation’s fighting ability. Hospitals and nursing homes grow chaotic as they increasingly depend on here-today, gone-tomorrow casual labor. If an organization can’t retain a preponderant percentage of its staff, it follows like the hours on the face of the clock that it must sink into turmoil.

Turmoil isn’t an inexact word to describe the condition of many of the nation’s schools and the systems they belong to. Let’s not, however, jump to simple-minded conclusions. We’ve got Al Gore and George W. Bush for that. So it doesn’t follow that the sole source of the turmoil is teacher turnover. Not that an in-for-a-day, out-forever faculty does much for continuity. Mr. Merrow cites an 11th-grade biology class in Oakland, Calif., that went 163 consecutive meetings without a regular teacher. Watson and Crick themselves might have had difficulty mastering the subject under those circumstances.

Paying teachers more might help. The average salary for a classroom teacher in the United States is about $41,000 a year. In New York, it’s about $10,000 more. Of course, at whatever salary, we don’t need to retain the services of ignorant teachers such as the thousands in New York City who failed the math certification tests. Nationwide, the spending gap per pupil between the richest and the poorest districts averages $5,000. Since we know that better school districts spend more money, have lower teacher turnover and better teachers, the political and legal struggles going on in state after state to equalize school spending is not merely angry levelerism. It’s not simply envy but has a pedagogical rationale. It doesn’t follow that school districts must have equal per-pupil expenditures, but there must be a floor, a minimum to attract and hold good teachers.

As teachers are paid more and are treated better, we can hope that the power of their unions can be lessened. If the teachers’ unions are the bane of public education, we, the public, have to admit that we brought it on ourselves by the way we kicked teachers around for years. The irony now is that the union kicks teachers around but in a different way than the school board. The unions cooperate in the demeaning of teachers as professionals. Teachers are protected by the unions against some abuses by management in return for their members being treated as post office clerks and bus drivers and making their foremost professional organization the means of keeping the teachers we don’t want to retain, the malingerers, the drunks and the petty sociopaths.

Teachers ought to be better compensated and they also need to have a professional dignity they have seldom had in American history. Remember Ichabod Crane? Like members of the medical profession, they are frequently overcome by paperwork, outside distractions, the wrong kind of supervision, impossible demands and other people’s political passions.

They are also often handicapped by poor training. The decline in academic standards didn’t begin last year. What deficiencies some would-be teachers had inflicted on them by attending inferior schools is made worse by what happens to them when they go to teachers’ college or schools of education, which are the outhouses of higher education. In fact, a few years ago, the University of Chicago decided its education department was so discreditable it closed it.

Mr. Merrow says unorthodox teacher training programs are showing results. Instead of the education-school nonsense, people who have taken their degrees in substantive disciplines such as history or chemistry are given a summer’s worth of training in teaching and then a year of weekend meetings. Teachers thus trained at least score higher in competency tests.

Meanwhile, the schools of education grind on as they always have, with the politicians compensating them for chunking out unlearned, disabled teachers by giving them more money. It is amazing that a crucial area of national life which occupies so much space in national and local political debates fosters such an immovable opposition to measures of improvement. It’s not that the K-through-12 world is impervious to change if the change comes under the right auspices, but the changes we’ve seen for the better part of two generations now have been fads that afford a way to pass the time at teachers’ conferences but don’t help children. The arithmetic and mathematics fiascos are the prime examples.

The harrumphing and snorting about accountability and holding people responsible, which has become the campaigning politician’s soundbite du jour, is probably only of the most limited help. Yes, there ought to be measures to tell us how well our children are doing, but changing the rules so that a teacher’s pay depends on the test scores of children in the class is akin to standing over a child who’s puzzling out a long division problem and screaming at him.

As for Governor Pataki and his same-old same-old idea, let us pray that the cryopreservationists come soon and refreeze him, thereby returning him to the harmless inert condition in which he shows to the best advantage, while others, who know that complicated problems seldom yield to easy solutions, take a crack at this thing.

Teacher Turnover Masks Bigger Classroom Woes