Op-Ed: ‘Our Schools Have Ignored the Flight of Great Teachers’

A 33-year veteran educator believes ‘we need to replace blind policies so teachers know their performance matters.’

A veteran teacher feels strongly that more needs to be done to keep talented new and veteran teachers in the classroom. (Photo: Thomas Tolstrup)

Recently, many of the nation’s leading education experts gathered with classroom teachers to discuss the state of education in America at the annual Education Nation summit in New York. The conversation raised some valuable insights about the future of our schools and in particular, how to ensure we have great teachers in every classroom.

As a 33-year veteran teacher, I still feel as passionate as ever about my profession. However, I have serious concerns about our nation’s ability to keep talented educators in the classroom after three years, let alone three decades.

During my career, I’ve seen many great teachers leave the classroom while still in their prime. Most hadn’t grown tired of teaching. Instead, they left because they didn’t get the recognition they deserve from their schools or from the district. They left because they didn’t see opportunities to advance their careers.

They left because they were being neglected.

More: Op-Ed: ‘What We Are Asking of Beginning Teachers Is Not Sustainable’

A study from TNTP, a national nonprofit that focuses on teacher quality, puts a spotlight on this urgent problem. Called “The Irreplaceables,” the study finds that the nation’s 50 largest school districts are losing approximately 10,000 great teachers every year that they could have kept. This leads to disastrous consequences for students and schools.

According to the study, when one ‘Irreplaceable’ leaves a low-achieving school, it can take 11 hires to find just one teacher of comparable quality. Meanwhile, many principals let their best teachers walk out the door without trying to keep them. Two-thirds of the top teachers TNTP surveyed said nobody at their school even asked them to come back for another year.

The study also shows that outdated policies make it harder for schools to hold on to great teachers. In particular, most districts don’t offer leadership roles to the most successful teachers.

Sadly, some policies actually cause our schools to lose irreplaceable teachers without considering their talents. Over the past several years, as budget cuts have forced layoffs in school districts across the country, seniority rules have dictated that the newest teachers be the first to lose their jobs, regardless of their performance. As a result, our public schools, and particularly those in disadvantaged neighborhoods, have lost some great educators who will never return to the classroom. We need to replace blind policies like these so that new and veteran teachers know that their performance matters.

When our public school system fails to consider the needs of our students and the performance of our teachers, we risk squandering our most precious resources—the limitless potential of our students and the irreplaceable talents of effective teachers.

But with a new year comes new opportunities to change the direction of our schools and focus on what’s best for our students.

First, we need to come together and negotiate meaningful, multi-measured evaluation systems for teachers in each and every district, one that gives teachers the feedback and support they need to succeed in the classroom.

Nothing is more frustrating to teachers than inheriting students who spent the previous year languishing in the classroom of an ineffective colleague.

Better evaluation would allow us to recognize and learn from our most talented teachers, support those who struggle and want to improve, and provide a mechanism for counseling out teachers who aren’t a good fit for this challenging and important craft. Nothing is more frustrating to teachers than inheriting students who spent the previous year languishing in the classroom of an ineffective colleague. And nothing destroys school culture faster than the feeling that some of your colleagues aren’t advancing a mission of academic excellence for kids.

In addition, we should collaborate on expanding opportunities for teachers to take on more leadership roles in their schools. TNTP found that creating opportunities for career advancement is one of the most promising ways to get the best teachers to stay.

I know career opportunity matters because it’s what has kept me in the classroom for so long. When the Los Angeles Unified School District began piloting teacher-designed schools that had more autonomy, I jumped at the chance to create my own school. I worked with a team of teachers to create the blueprint for New Open World Academy, a public school nestled inside the historic Robert F. Kennedy Complex in Los Angeles. It was a fantastic experience that rejuvenated and reinforced my commitment to public education.

However, my situation is unfortunately an exception to the norm for many of our nation's teachers. Our schools have ignored the flight of great teachers and instead upheld outdated policies that do not help us raise achievement levels for children or keep irreplaceable talent in the classroom. It’s time for the leaders convening at Education Nation and in school districts across the country to take the common sense steps that will keep more of the best teachers where they belong: in the classroom.

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