As a mid-career professional with a doctorate in chemistry, Maurice Stephenson appeared made to order for the Los Angeles Unified School District, especially because he was eager to teach at a high-poverty campus in a system woefully short of qualified science teachers.
But the honeymoon ended abruptly after less than two years. Fed up with student insolence and administrative impotence, he stalked out of Manual Arts High School on March 12 and never went back.
Few teachers quit so dramatically, but leave they do. In California, teachers are departing the profession in alarming numbers -- 22% in four years or fewer -- but simply offering them more money won’t solve the problem, according to a report released Thursday.
The real issue is working conditions, which are the flip side of a student’s learning conditions, said Ken Futernick, who directs K-12 studies at the Center for Teacher Quality at Cal State Sacramento.
His study, which was based on a survey of nearly 2,000 California teachers, maps a growing crisis that fundamentally affects student learning.
The study also casts doubt on commonly pursued remedies both for the teacher shortage and student achievement in general.
Classroom interruptions, student discipline, increasing demands, insufficient supplies, overcrowding, unnecessary meetings, lack of support -- all play a role in burning out teachers.
“They’re not just driving teachers crazy; they’re driving teachers out of the classrooms,” Futernick said.
Stephenson is among the 35% of L.A. Unified teachers who quit within five years, according to school district data.
And as in most other cases, salary wasn’t the primary factor.
In fact, L.A. Unified’s data lists salary as the No. 9 reason why new hires leave. No. 1 is “moving.” But also cited are “lack of support from administrator,” “student discipline policy” and “unmotivated students.”
Those results are consistent with Futernick’s findings: “When teaching and learning conditions are poor, we discovered that many teachers see their compensation as inadequate. When these teaching and learning conditions are good, not only do teachers tend to stay, they actually view their compensation as a reason for staying.”
The findings suggest that when teachers unions advocate primarily for salary, they have it somewhat wrong. On the other hand, Futernick said, administrators are clearly misguided when they focus single-mindedly on getting rid of “bad teachers.”
That issue pales in importance to teacher retention. Moreover, at a struggling school, “one is hard-pressed to know the good teachers from the bad. Such a place is not conducive to good teaching,” he said.
At high-minority and high-poverty schools, teacher turnover typically runs at 10% annually.
“If this churning is going on, you can be sure you have a dysfunctional school,” Futernick said. “As long as we think of these schools as combat zones, we’ll never solve the retention problem and we’ll never close the achievement gap” between white and Asian students and their black and Latino peers.
Indeed, some researchers have cited the quality of teaching as perhaps the single most important factor that affects student achievement.
High-poverty schools have the additional hurdle of a more limited teaching applicant pool, and they are more likely to have teachers who work outside their field of training.
By some estimates, about $455 million per year is squandered in teacher training in California because of premature departures. Vastly improving teaching conditions probably would cost much more.
“We have a high-school dropout problem,” Futernick said, “in large part because we have a teacher dropout problem.”
Stephenson, 52, had two pressing complaints at Manual Arts. For one, he said, 39 students were enrolled in a lab class that he said could safely hold only 30.
Then there were the students themselves.
“They were showing up to class totally unprepared, with no pens, no pencils, no paper to work with,” he said.
That was particularly irksome, he said, because students could obtain free supplies from a school office.
When he did that errand for them, fellow teachers chastised Stephenson for enabling bad student behavior. Meanwhile, he said, the message from the administration was: The students are staying. Make the best of it.
When the new term started in March, Stephenson took a different tack: “I gave them one week to get all the materials they needed so they could do all their work.”
They ignored him. He walked.
So was this teacher worth keeping? Other instructors at the same school have inspired their students. And at a school where freshmen outnumber seniors 3 to 1, any student inside a class could be considered a striving survivor.
District officials had no immediate response to Stephenson’s account.
A teachers union official insisted that Stephenson had a solid reputation among instructors.
He became a teacher after years as a science consultant to grant writers and contractors seeking government work.
Officials from L.A. Unified, the largest school district in the state, insisted that they were focusing on the teacher retention problem as never before. The school system has increased its percentage of credentialed teachers to 94% from 78% in the last four years. It also offers pay incentives for teachers in needed fields and for teachers who go to hard-to-staff schools.
The teacher vacancy rate is at an all-time low, said Vivian Ekchian, the district’s deputy chief of human resources.
Also, at 22 high schools, including Manual Arts, the district has assigned a full-time teacher to help struggling colleagues and provided a pool of substitutes who attend staff meetings and work at the campus full time.
Teachers union President A.J. Duffy is unimpressed: “L.A. Unified is very good at creating the illusion that they’re on it and that things are getting better -- and we don’t believe that anymore. Which is why our thrust is local control of schools with accountability.”
That view has some resonance with academics. California, in its desire for accountability, has made education ever more bureaucratic, rule-oriented and regimented, said Stanford University education professor Susanna Loeb at a conference last week.
Special-education teachers are inundated with paperwork and other stresses that push them out of teaching or at least out of teaching the disabled.
“I told everybody I would teach as long as it was fun,” said Barbara Millman, who left her teaching job at a school in San Pedro for the severely disabled at age 63. “They kept squeezing more kids into a class and trying to get by with less assistants. I felt the kids were not getting the kind of attention they needed and that we also were not valued as experts.”
Other states, including Arizona, Nevada and North Carolina, use teacher survey information in ways that California does not, Futernick said. North Carolina, in particular, has adopted workplace standards that protect teachers from unnecessary interruptions, paperwork and meetings.
Such standards seem a universe apart from the experience of a former Los Angeles middle school teacher who said she taught at a rodent- and roach-infested campus where students read at a second-grade level and frequently wandered the grounds because no one made them go to class.
“It got to the point where my morale was so low, and I cared so little that I would show up 15 minutes late, with my students waiting outside. No one ever said a word to me. I was still a star,” said the former teacher, who asked not to be named because she has returned to the school system for a job outside the classroom.
She had to leave the classroom because “I saw myself turning into the others. What we attract are the martyrs and the lazy, and the conditions perpetuate it.”
For the report, go to www.calstate.edu/ teacherquality/retention.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Why teachers leave
Top 10 reasons cited by California teachers who quit or planned to quit teaching, or who planned to transfer out of their current schools, because of job dissatisfaction:
Percent saying each reason affected decision
Bureaucratic interference: 57%
Poor support from district: 52%
Low staff morale: 45%
Lack of resources: 42%
Unsupportive principal: 42%
Poor compensation: 41%
Too little decision- making authority: 405
Too little time for planning: 36%
Accountability pressures: 35%
Lack of teamwork: 35%
Note: Responses are from 220 current and former California teachers who participated in a 2005 online survey by the California State University Center for Teacher Quality.
Source: California State University Center for Teacher Quality
Los Angeles Times