Cuomo Should Address School Culture

Governor Cuomo take note. My colleague Meghan Groome of the New York Academy of Sciences made an important point today in an op-ed in Newsday. In Cuomo's state of the state address this week, he proposed an education commission to address teacher accountability, student achievement and management efficiency. 

While these are all fine issues, focusing solely on them creates a huge blind spot to something that is limiting our educational system.  As Groome tells Newsday:

Too many of our most promising teachers give up on the job early in their careers.

We are always looking to fix schools and make them more efficient.  Yet all the accountability and managerial fixes in the world will only go so far if teaching talent is not cultivated and retained.

About a third of new teachers leave the field within the first three years, and one half leave after five years, according to researchers at Stanford and Michigan State universities....A conservative national estimate of the annual cost of teacher attrition is nearly $3 billion, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based public policy organization. In addition to the general costs of recruiting and hiring, schools invest hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in valuable professional development and orientation programs, often mandated by law. When teachers leave, schools have to make the same investments over again....Not only does it cost a lot to replace teachers, high teacher turnover is associated with lower student achievement.

In her article, Groome talks about the reasons teachers leave. She lists some "repeat offenders" that she has come across as a former teacher herself, as someone who currently works with teachers on a daily basis, and as a scholar who studies the dynamics of teaching math and science in inner cities:  

[A] mismatch between good teaching practice and accountability measures; too much chaos and too little stability in their schools; too many responsibilities for the amount of time they have in their work day; and, in some places, too little pay to make a middle-class lifestyle feasible.

Surveys of teachers in New York City show that school culture, primarily working conditions and how supportive school administrators are, influence teachers' career decisions immensely.  "Teachers want a principal who listens to their ideas and colleagues with whom they can collaborate on a regular basis," Groome writes. 

These are simple, but essential things -- especially for those at the start of their careers. Researchers studying beginning teachers in Michigan found that those who described their work environments as unsupportive were about five times more likely to leave their schools before the following year."

Groome proposes commonsense solutions to help retain teachers. These include helping teaches build  communities of like-minded colleagues; establishing positive professional, supportive relationships with colleagues and administrators in and outside their schools; and facilitating professional growth.

Groome ends her piece with a powerful statement that Cuomo and his fledgling education commission would be wise to consider:

Focusing on these facets of school culture provides direction for policy makers and school administrators -- and one that is far more actionable than addressing the issues of the crumbling infrastructure of American schools, the current structure by which we pay teachers, and persistent achievement gaps determined by ZIP code.