Staff turnover can plague small schools.
While the rate of teacher turnover is high across the city and the nation, turnover in the new small schools is even higher than in the school system as a whole. An analysis conducted by the Center for New York City Affairs found that 20 percent of the teachers in 86 new small high schools that opened between 2002 and 2004, in the first years of the Bloomberg administration, quit or transferred in SY 2006-07, compared to 15 percent in the 177 more established high schools.
Some schools have even higher proportions of teachers transferring or quitting: For example, the analysis found that the Urban Assembly School for Media Studies in the Martin Luther King, Jr. complex in Manhattan lost half of its teachers in 2006-07, as did the Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy (BETA) in the John F. Kennedy complex. The Bronx High School for Violin and Dance lost 45 percent of its teachers, while the Eagle Academy for Young Men lost 63 percent. The analysis was based on New York State Education Department school report card data for 2006-07.
Not only do the new small schools have higher turnover, they also tend to have less experienced teachers than the more established schools. The Center's analysis found 36 percent of teachers at the new small schools had less than three years' experience, compared to 13 percent at the more established high schools.
The two characteristics are related: Turnover is typically higher for teachers in their first few years on the job, in New York and nationwide. However, small schools also put special demands on teachers that large schools do not. The very features that can make a school successful for the students —including the personal attention and warm relationships with adults—may make the job more satisfying for teachers but may also add to the already long hours of teaching and eventually lead to burnout.
Teachers in small schools perform multiple roles. Because the staff is small, they may be called upon to teach more than one subject. They may take on administrative tasks that would be the responsibility of an assistant principal in a larger school or disciplinary tasks that a dean might handle. They frequently serve as student advisors and often become more involved in the emotional life of students than teachers in a traditional school.
For some, particularly those with a number of years' experience under their belt, the extra work of teaching in a small school is worth it. Amy Basile, 34, taught math at the High School of Telecommunications in Brooklyn before she went to Essex Street Academy in Manhattan. Now, she has four classes of 20 students, compared to five classes of 34 at her previous school. She works from 7:45 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the week, and prepares lessons on weekends. "It's more work but it's better work," she says. "We have fewer students and more autonomy in the classroom. We all have ownership in this school."
But other young teachers interviewed by the center, particularly brand-new teachers in brand-new schools, say they don't receive enough support to help them learn their craft, especially when their students are very needy.
"We expect new teachers to do what experienced teachers do without giving them training, without giving them a chance to apprentice," says Sendhil Revuluri, a founding teacher at the Bronx Academy of Letters, one of the new small schools. He has since left to take an administrative post in the Chicago Public Schools. "I don't know any [other] profession where they do that."
Revuluri, a University of Chicago graduate who taught math at Bronx Academy, says he struggled to develop strategies for his students, who entered ninth grade with very low levels of skills. "Most of them don't know their times tables," he said. "They don't know what a factor is. Almost none of them can do long division."
Many teachers at the new schools are recruited from two programs, Teach for America and New York City Teaching Fellows, an alternative teacher certification program. Teach for America, which recruits talented recent graduates from top liberal arts colleges, asks its teachers to stay for two years, and many leave after their two-year commitment is up. A 2004 study by the research firm Mathematica found that only 11 percent of the Teach for America participants they surveyed intended to pursue a teaching career.
The Teaching Fellows program, of which Revuluri was a part, gives new teachers their own classroom following an intensive summer training program. While teaching, they take graduate courses necessary to get their master's degrees and teaching certificates. The demands of working full-time while studying at night lead some teachers to quit the profession, according to interviews with a dozen teaching fellows.
"There is just crazy amounts of work," said a teaching fellow who asked not to be identified. She rises at 5 a.m. to commute from her home in Brooklyn to her job in the Bronx at a school that's a 20-minute walk from the nearest subway stop. "Being a first-year teacher is hard enough, but at least once a week I have a [graduate] class until 10 p.m." at City College in Harlem. She said she often doesn't get to sleep until 1 a.m.
School Improvement Strategy
For the Department of Education (DOE), teacher turnover is less important than student performance. "We are conscious of it as a concern," says Garth Harries, the DOE official who was in charge of opening many of the new schools. "There is, of course, both good turnover and bad turnover. There may be teachers that don't work out. The most important bottom line for us is student performance over time."
For some principals, easing out teachers who don't share their philosophy is an important way to build an effective school. "When you establish a vision, you need people who follow the vision, or they should work at a place where they can follow the vision," says Rashid Davis, the principal of the Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy. His expectations for teachers are high. For example, they must be willing to do "aggressive outreach" when a student is absent and to help students outside regular school hours. He doesn't tolerate teacher absences any more than he tolerates students' cutting class.
"We have an attendance program for staff and students," Davis says. "We have a needy population and because you are hired as a professional, you are expected to be here every day—no ifs, ands or buts. More than two absences in one term is excessive because the students need you here every single day. Those who couldn't handle it are no longer with us."
The school lost half its staff the summer he became principal, in 2006, according to DOE statistics, and many other teachers have come and gone in the years since. "The teacher turnover rate will be high until the teachers are in alignment with the vision," Davis says.
While some teacher turnover is desirable for school improvement, explains Hamilton Lankford, an economist at the University of Albany, students in high-turnover schools are more likely to have inexperienced teachers. His research has found that teachers who are less effective than others at raising student test scores are more likely to leave. At the same time, he says, inexperienced teachers, on average, are less effective than experienced teachers.
"High turnover creates instability in schools, making it more difficult to have coherent instruction," Lankford says. "This instability may be particularly problematic when schools are trying to implement reforms, as the new teachers coming in each year are likely to repeat mistakes rather than improve upon implementation of reform."
Other experts say high rates of turnover strike at the core of what makes small schools work. "Constant turnover disrupts the personal relationships that form the strength of the small schools, particularly in their early years," wrote Merle Weinstein, a professor of education at New York University, in a study of New York City small schools she conducted from 1993 to 2004. "Small schools are dependent on the vision and enthusiasm of founding staff, and turnover means a loss of that original energy and vision." Weinstein found that teacher turnover tends to get progressively worse in the first six years after a new school opens, and that staffing patterns become stable only after 10 years.
Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania and a national expert on the issue of teacher retention, says research suggests that teachers with at least six years of experience in the classroom are the most effective.
He attributes teacher turnover to pressures placed on staff, which may be particularly severe in a small school. Ingersoll says in the present environment—not just in New York, but nationally—teachers are judged on their students' test scores but not given the support they need to improve the quality of their teaching. "You squeeze them, but you don't give them more training on how to teach or time to do it. It's not really autonomy—it's the responsibility to carry out someone else's dictates," he says.
His research also suggests that small schools have a higher rate of turnover than large schools: In a national study, he found large urban schools serving mostly poor students had an annual turnover rate of 19 percent in 2000-01, while small urban schools serving poor students had a turnover rate of 26 percent.
"It contradicts the whole notion of 'small is beautiful,'" Ingersoll says. "Maybe it's not so beautiful for teachers. If you get along with the administration, it's great. But if not, it can be awfully claustrophobic. Small schools are not necessarily more democratic, and teachers may not have more input" into how decisions are made than in large schools.
Turnover may be more disruptive in a small school than in a large school. A small school may have only one biology teacher, who also teaches music, serves as an advisor to the student council, helps the principal with the budget and who is the one adult able to connect with a particularly alienated student. If such a teacher quits, it may leave a bigger hole in the school than if a similarly talented teacher left a large school.
Evidence of Improvement
On the other hand, there is evidence that teacher retention is improving overall in New York City. Data collected by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) suggests that teachers who manage to get through the early, difficult years of teaching are more likely, overall, to stay than they were in the past. Even though attrition rates remain high for new teachers, the percentage of teachers with fewer than five years' experience, in the system as a whole (including elementary, middle and high schools) has declined from 44.6 percent in November 2002 to 30.3 percent in November 2008, according to a recent UFT report.
These two seemingly contradictory findings—high attrition rates in the early years and a larger proportion of teachers with five years' experience—may mean more teachers are coming into city schools with prior experience, the UFT report said. It may also mean that once teachers pass the five-year mark in city schools, more of them are staying.
Under Mayor Bloomberg, the typical teacher's salary has risen by 43 percent. UFT officials say higher salaries may account for teachers' decisions to stay. A deteriorating economy may also contribute to higher retention rates.
Schools Chancellor Klein says both principal and teacher turnover rates are declining overall, and he is optimistic the labor force is stabilizing. "When we started our first year, I think we turned over about 15 percent of our principals," he says. "We are now down to turning over 5 percent [a year.] And similarly we are turning over a far lower ratio of teachers. So while we still obviously have attrition in the system, that's going to give us stability in the workforce which will mature and improve."
Some small high schools have made a priority of teacher retention, with a particular focus on supporting first-year teachers. Kenneth Baum, principal of the Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science, a new school in the Bronx, hires new teachers in May—not over the summer as is typical—so they can work side-by-side with more experienced teachers during May and June. Then, when they have their own classrooms in September, they are paired with more senior teachers designated as "team leaders." Time is set aside each day for teams of teacher to plan lessons together.
"This school is designed around the whole idea of supporting teachers, to help them survive the first year," says Assistant Principal David Krulwich. "New teachers get to meet almost every day with veterans." Class size is capped at 20 students, significantly smaller than the standard 34 in large schools or 27 in other small schools. Baum manages to do this by asking administrators to teach and by using the money that would otherwise go to substitutes to hire regular staff members. This means if a teacher is sick, another teacher must take his or her class.
Baum tries to give teachers a sense of a career ladder, in order to keep them in the classroom while giving them other opportunities to advance. For example, he paid tuition for graduate courses for a staff member who was interested in learning how to teach English as a second language. As staff members are given more administrative responsibilities, they are encouraged to stay in the classroom: Even assistant principals teach courses. "You can be promoted and still stay in the classroom," says a team leader.
Opened in 2004 with just one sixth-grade class, the school is too new for teacher turnover data to be published by the DOE. But Baum says he is encouraged by his early results. "I get them to stay for two to three years, but how about after that?" he says. "This is the year I have targeted to grow our second-, third-, and fourth-year teachers to stay and assume critical middle leadership roles. I remain cautiously optimistic."