High Teacher Turnover in Teach for America

Another plank of the education platform of the Gillard Government is in danger of collapsing. The fast-track teacher training program Teach for Australia is under question following new research findings that the majority of teachers in its US counterpart Teach for America leave teaching after 3 years. The attrition rate in Teach for America is much higher than for traditionally trained new teachers.

If similar high attrition rates are reproduced in Teach for Australia not only will $22 million be wasted, but it will end up exacerbating the problem it is supposed to solve – namely, retaining high quality teachers in disadvantaged schools.

The whole idea behind Teach for America (TFA) and its Australian clone is to improve results in disadvantaged schools by fast-tracking high achieving graduates who do not have formal teacher qualifications into teaching in these schools. Graduates get five weeks of intensive teacher training (in Australia it is six weeks) and they agree to stay in disadvantaged schools for two years.

A contentious issue about the program has been how long these teachers stay in teaching and how long they stay in the disadvantaged schools they are assigned to. Critics say that most teachers do not stay in teaching and the high turnover compounds the problems of disadvantaged schools in attracting and retaining high quality teachers. However, until now little data has been available to assess these claims.

The new research shows that 60% of TFA teachers remained in teaching after completing their two-year commitment, that is, 40% left teaching after their initial commitment (see left side of chart below). Fifty-five per cent left after three years and 72% left teaching after five years, that is, only 28% were still teaching after five years. According to the authors of the study, this is much lower than the 50% estimated for new teachers across all types of schools in the US. Other studies put the retention rate in public schools at around 60% after five years.

Of the 45% who remained in teaching after three years, about half had changed schools (see right side of chart). Only 22.5% of those starting the program continued to teach in their original low income school after three years and only 15% remained after the fourth year.

The study says that “this level of turnover is very problematic from the perspective of low-income schools and their students”. It concludes:

Given TFA’s commitment to closing the achievement gap — a goal shared by many other fast-track preparation programs — this revolving door transfer of teachers from the schools that most need skilled, experienced teachers remains a serious problem.

These results are from a nationwide survey of graduates who entered the TFA program from 2000 to 2002. The study is published in the October issue of the education journal Phi Delta Kappan.

The results suggest that TFA teachers do not have the same commitment to education as traditionally trained teachers. Over 60% of those who left said that they wanted to pursue other careers or were dissatisfied with aspects of teaching. About 45% left to take positions or enter courses for careers outside education and 18% left because of particular dissatisfactions with teaching.

There seems little point in bringing fast-tracked teachers into classrooms when they have no intention of staying more than two or three years work there. It requires a huge amount of time and energy in schools to help them with the basics of class management and curriculum. Then, just when they are starting to get the hang of it, many of them they leave.

Teacher attrition, especially in disadvantaged schools, is a major problem both in the US and Australia. High turnover creates major problems for the very schools that most need stability and continuity. They are perpetually searching for new teachers to replace those who leave. Most importantly, students are likely to suffer because of the lack of continuity and inexperienced teachers. Novice teachers typically fill vacancies. As a result, students are taught by a stream of first-year teachers who are, on average, less effective than their more experienced counterparts.

High teacher turnover makes it difficult to build instructional capacity. It impedes a school’s efforts to coordinate cur¬riculum, to track and share information about students as they move from grade to grade, and to maintain productive relationships with par¬ents and the local community.

TFA seems to be compounding these problems rather than alleviating them because it has a higher attrition rate than amongst traditionally trained teachers.

A study published last year found that TFA teachers do not perform as well as traditionally trained novice teachers in the same school. Students of novice TFA teachers achieve significantly less in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers.

The study also showed that TFA teachers get better if they stay long enough to become fully credentialed. Experienced, fully credentialed TFA teachers appear to do about as well as other, similarly experienced, credentialed teachers in teaching reading according to the report. Sometimes they do better than that comparison group in teaching mathematics. However, the problem is that only a small minority stay long enough to become experienced and fully credentialed teachers.

The attrition rate for TFA teachers is 72% after five years compared to about 25% for new teachers in government schools in Australia. If the TFA rates occur in Teach for Australia, the program is in serious trouble. It will have exacerbated the problem of teacher turnover in schools. It will prove to be yet another false promise for education renewal and another wasted investment by the Gillard Government.

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