John Ewing: The costs of our teachers opting out

By John Ewing [Educator, Mathematician, and President of Math for America]

As another school year gets underway, the public receives its annual dose of hand wringing about the state of American education. In the past few weeks, we have read about massive "failures" as districts and states report scores from last year's tests, about the rise of the opt-out movement, about parental unease with the Common Core, and about teacher shortages spreading across the country.

Editorials excoriate public schools; pundits offer glib solutions; politicians excoriate "whining" teachers and their unions, which, we are told, have brought education to this state of affairs.

This ritual of education bashing has become so commonplace that it's easy not to notice and move on. But we ought to notice because the annual lamentation is causing great damage. Because of it, confidence in public schools has fallen by nearly half over the past four decades, from roughly 60 percent to below 30. Because of it, job satisfaction for teachers has fallen dramatically, from 62 percent to 39 percent in just five years. And because of it, experienced, accomplished teachers are leaving classrooms in droves, while interest in teacher training programs is plummeting.

Each year, about 13 percent of the nation's roughly 3.5 million teachers either move to a different school or opt-out of teaching altogether. This means schools are in a perennial scramble to find replacements. Some see recruitment programs such as Teach for America as the answer. But filling classrooms with bright people with little training or support is not much of a solution. A few recruits succeed, growing into talented and passionate long-term educators, but many more struggle and leave after a year or two. Recruitment is important, but until we find ways to retain outstanding teachers we will be pumping water out of a sinking ship instead of plugging the holes.

Even more concerning, such programs are predicated on the belief that great teaching requires only enthusiasm and determination, not deep knowledge and carefully-honed skills. By perpetuating this view, they demean the profession and ultimately reduce its prestige. These programs may attract plenty of college graduates eager to burnish their resumes, but until teaching is viewed as a respected profession that requires both talent and training, our best and brightest will never consider it a career.

Study after study shows that experience counts in teaching. While recruitment may be an immediate need, retaining a workforce of outstanding, experienced educators is the ultimate goal.

So what do we do?
First, stop casting teachers as the cause of the problem rather than partners in the solution. Stop pretending that one must choose between the interests of teachers and the interests of students. This only serves to demoralize the people on whom our education system depends. Teachers grow weary of having to defend themselves, and they eventually burn-out.

Second, treat teachers like the professional they are. Teachers, present and future, want two things--honest respect and sensible autonomy. Neither is automatic or easy in an accountability system that is designed on distrust, but both are possible. Programs like the one I head at Math for America attempt to create an environment in which teachers can thrive as professionals. We don't fix them--our teachers don't need fixing-- but rather provide them with opportunities to grow, refine their craft, and take control of their own career. Teachers thrive in an environment of respect and autonomy.

We are not alone. Other programs share the same values, which aim eventually to restore the prestige of teaching. But to succeed we need to change the public dialogue about teachers. We need to focus on excellence, not failure. We need to highlight teachers who are accomplished, not obsess about those who are not. We need to avoid driving away several outstanding teachers in order to rid ourselves of one who is mediocre.

The good news is that retaining our most accomplished teachers--showing them respect, giving them independence, and making their careers not merely acceptable but prestigious--turns out to be the most effective way to recruit new teachers as well. If we want to attract talented people into the classroom, we must start by making the teaching profession more attractive.