Stay With Me

DPS moves to address ‘crisis level’ teacher turnover

PHOTO: J Zubrzycki
A teacher at DSST: Cole. The charter network has made teacher fulfillment a strategic priority this year, partly in an effort to retain more teachers.

A growing awareness that perennially high teacher turnover is hurting student learning is prompting Denver Public Schools to seek the root causes of churn and develop strategies to keep teachers in the classroom.

More than 20 percent of all DPS teachers left their positions between 2012 and 2013, according to state data. And according to district information, half of all teachers leave the district within three years.

“Right now, our teacher turnover, in particular in high-poverty schools, is a problem,” said DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg. “Nothing is more important for closing achievement gaps than being able to have our best teachers and our best school leaders working at and staying at our high-poverty schools.”

Denver Public Schools released a report last week highlighting recommendations for reducing turnover, especially in high-needs schools. The district has also started tracking voluntary teacher turnover in schools to determine when and where teachers are leaving for reasons other than retirement or advancement.

The quality of leadership, an unsustainable workload, and too much assessment were among the factors the task force of teachers behind the report identified as leading to high turnover.

At Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, teacher Martha Burgess said that each teacher’s decision was different. “It’s different factors over time: People not feeling respected, not feeling like they’re making an impact. Certainly workload,” she said. “Some retire, some transfer to other schools. But it is important. When you look at what veteran teachers bring, that can’t be underestimated.”

Keeping teachers in the classroom

Denver’s difficulty retaining teachers is part of a statewide trend: A fifth of all Colorado teachers left their positions between 2012-13 and 2013-14, according to the state Department of Education. That’s higher than the national turnover rate of 14 percent.

Statewide, “turnover is at crisis level,” said Shelley Zion, the director of the Center for Advancing Practice, Education and Research at the University of Colorado Denver. The university has also recently launched a program called EDU focused on supporting teachers and reducing turnover.

But the fixes on the table aren’t always simple. “If we want to retain really quality teachers, we need to really shift how we empower and support them to get what they need,” Zion said.

The DPS teacher retention report was based on the work of a group of district teachers, most of whom work in low-income schools. In Denver, teachers who do stay in the classroom tend to transfer to schools with lower poverty rates.

The recommendations fell into four themes: Leadership, supports for students, supports for teachers, and rewards and recognition.

  • Leadership: The panel recommended a clearer process for hiring principals, including a teacher voice in that process; having principals teach a class each week; and requiring principals to be master teachers. (The district has recently launched a number of programs focusing on preparing and supporting school leaders.)
  • Support for teachers: “Put simply, the workload at high-poverty schools is unsustainable,” the authors wrote. “…As it stands…the number of assessments required coupled with the absence of adequate planning time…render teaching in high-poverty schools less attractive.” The panel also urged the district to decrease the teacher-student ratio.
  • Support for students: The task force called for provide more resources in high-poverty schools, including hiring enough counselors, school nurses, and parent liaisons.
  • Rewards and recognition: The report suggested creating clear paths for teachers to grow professionally, and financial recognition for teachers who take on new roles, and those who stay in high-poverty schools for longer stretches of time.

In a public email, Boasberg said the district would heed the task force’s advice and was already taking steps to address the issues it raises. And in an interview, Boasberg said that the district also planned to adjust its ProComp system, which offers financial incentives to teachers who work in high-needs roles or schools, or who accomplish certain objectives, to make it more effective. The district is currently negotiating an update to ProComp with its teachers union.

Baby steps

This school year, DPS officials started using high rates of voluntary teacher turnover as a “flag” that that school may need support or more attention.

At a meeting of the district’s board last November, DPS Chief Academic Officer Alyssa Whitehead-Bust mentioned turnover as one of the non-academic factors the district uses to gauge school quality. “We know in schools that lack stability, it’s so much harder to improve student outcomes,” she said.

But even as the district looks to reduce turnover, some of its strategies for struggling schools involve replacing staff or entire schools. One teacher, who requested anonymity because she said she feared retaliation, told Chalkbeat that the lack of job security at high-needs schools had influenced her own and peers’ decisions about where to work.

Some of the district’s charter schools are independently examining their own teacher retention and satisfaction. Charter network DSST, for example, has made teacher fulfillment one if its strategic priorities for the current school year.

Beyond “Hoop Jumping”

Teacher fulfillment and satisfaction—or the lack thereof—also drove the creation of EDU, said the University of Colorado’s Zion. “The big idea behind it has been that teachers in the last several years have been disempowered, scrutinized, deprofessionalized and stressed beyond measure,” she said.

EDU members, who can come from anywhere, pay $20 per month to access a set of courses and resources, online and physical, that address both the pedagogical, professional, and social-emotional elements of teaching.

“We in teacher education feel like we do a really good job of preparing them,” Zion said. “But then they go into district schools and classrooms in which they’re sometimes supported well, but often not.”

At Kunsmiller, teacher Mandy Israel said outsiders often underestimate teachers’ workload and emotional commitment. “I get here at 7. The contract doesn’t say I have to get here at until 8:30. And when I get here there are other people in my hallway who are already here.”

Israel is now a teacher-leader at her school—a role that she says has increased her professional satisfaction but added to her workload.

Burgess said she had been reflecting on why teachers leave schools after encountering an editorial by Josh Waldron, who had been named Teacher of the Year by a local group in Virginia only to leave the profession several years later.

In the editorial, Waldron writes that teaching in his district had become unsustainable financially and personally. His top concern at his district was what he describes as “hoop jumping”—adjusting to a constantly-shifting and time-consuming set of requirements from the district.

Burgess, also a teacher-leader, said that in her sixth year teaching, she still enjoys teaching but empathizes with Waldron’s concerns. “I’m excited that there is finally some attention being paid,” she said.

How I Teach

This Memphis teacher went viral for holding ‘class’ on Facebook Live during a snow day

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Candous Brown teaches one of her 12th-grade English classes at Raleigh-Egypt High School. Brown has been teaching in Memphis for 10 years.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

When a week of snow days brought Candous Brown’s 12th-grade English class to a wintry halt, her students convinced her to take her lesson live on Facebook.

So wearing pajamas and with occasional photobombs by her 10-year-old son, Brown sat down at her laptop and convened an impromptu class with about 40 students from Raleigh-Egypt High School in Memphis. Some participants were actually previous students who decided to drop in.

“I’m so proud of y’all for actually wanting to do this,” she said at the outset, complimenting her students for their resourcefulness, ingenuity, and good use of technology.

The 33-year-old teacher has a knack for engaging her students where they are. That means frequently tapping into their love of music to grow their passion for literature.

“Why wouldn’t we focus on that?” she asks rhetorically.

During Black History Month, for instance, Brown pairs excerpts of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 book “Why We Can’t Wait” with freedom songs from the documentary “Soundtrack for a Revolution.”

“I want them to know how music was utilized during the civil rights movement,” she said. “ In many instances, it was the thing that kept people motivated and unified.”

Chalkbeat spoke recently with Brown about teaching on Facebook Live and how she builds relationships with her students every day. (Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

I have always enjoyed literature and reading so it fit that I would be an English teacher.  As a student, my teachers would use me as a peer tutor.  I assisted classmates with their assignments and they would tell me I’d make a great teacher.  Of course, I would reject the idea; but looking back on it, they were leading me in the right direction.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

I love teaching anything Shakespeare. But more recently, my favorite lesson has been to teach “The Hero’s Journey.” We were reading Beowulf and I wanted the students to trace Beowulf’s journey into the hero that we know him to be in today’s culture. When I first start the unit, I have them think of heros within their own lives. Or times when they felt like they were the hero in a situation. I want them to be able to connect this hero’s journey to themselves.  We read the text, participated in class discussion, did an analytical comparison of the movie and the text.  The students loved it.

Recently, you received national attention for holding class via Facebook Live during a snow day. Why was it important to make instructional time happen during that long break? How do you instill excitement for learning in your students?

That was actually my very first time going live. I was so nervous. I didn’t want to say something foolish and have the entire virtual world see my flub. I got up that morning, planned for some anticipated misconceptions, and went for it.

My students were the ones who set everything up. They asked if I’d be willing to do the lesson and, of course, I couldn’t say no when they were willing to do the work. I told them about my apprehensions and then one student used a phrase that I tell them when they are afraid to try something new: “First time for everything.” At that moment, I knew I had to do it. It was important to make it happen because they wanted it to happen. I always tell them that they cannot wait to be within the confines of a school to learn.

It pleased my soul that they were still attempting to do the work without me and that they trusted me enough to reach out. I think when they see me get excited or passionate about certain topics, it resonates with them.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?

Students tend to shut down when they don’t understand a lesson. Then, they state the infamous sentence: “I don’t get it.” I force them to think about the lesson and target the source of confusion. They have to be able to explain the problem to me before I help them. More often than not, their own explanation of the misconception helps them figure out the issue on their own. Also, they know that I am a last resort.  They will ask a peer or neighbor before they ask me because they know I will make them explain everything they know before I will help. It forces them to explore their own understanding of the concept.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

I usually don’t have to say or do much. My facial expressions do the talking for me.  Once the kids see my face, they tell each other to get it together before I start fussing.  Apparently, the last thing they want to hear from me is fussing.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Brown says her facial expressions can do the talking for her when her students get off track.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

At the beginning of the school term, my students complete an “Interest Survey.” I participate with them and allow them to ask me questions. I figure if I’m asking them questions about their lives outside of the classroom, they should be allowed to ask the same of me, within reason. When the surveys are done, I file them. No one will see their answers but me. When appropriate, I incorporate things I learn about them into the lessons to make them more relatable. In that way, they know that I am paying attention and it opens the floor to them so that they know I am trustworthy and truly have their best interest at heart. I never demean them for the things they reveal and I don’t shy away from tough conversations. My door stays open to them unless I’m grading or planning.

What’s the best advice you ever received as a teacher?

To remember why I’m in the classroom. Sometimes, the classroom can be daunting and overwhelming. I have my students, I’m the single mother of a 10-year-old son and, on top of that, I’m working toward a master’s degree. I could easily get discouraged. But if I remember why I’m there, it becomes manageable. I am there to serve my students. I am there to lead my students. Those two things are never lost upon me.

school rules

Arkansas passed a law banning suspensions for truancy. Then it was largely ignored.

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

What if an education law passed, but nobody followed it?

That appears to be the bizarre situation in Arkansas, which in 2013 enacted a straightforward law banning out-of-school suspensions for truancy.

But three years later, nearly 1,100 students were still suspended for not showing up to school. Many Arkansas schools were simply not complying with the law, according to a new study.

What happened? It’s not entirely clear, but a communication breakdown may be to blame. The study notes that schools didn’t hear explicitly from the Arkansas Department of Education about the new law until January 2017.

The state disputes this — kind of — pointing to 2014 and 2015 memos, though neither actually mentions the rule change or acceptable penalties for truancy. A department spokesperson said the memos’ “regulatory authority” include the law banning suspensions.

“While [the department] does not track every phone call or correspondence, in general we have ongoing communication with educators, schools, districts and education service cooperatives,” said the spokesperson, Kimberly Friedman.

What’s clear is that only some Arkansas schools changed their practices. In the 2012-13 school year, about 14 percent of truancy cases resulted in out-of-school suspensions, and by 2015-16 that had dipped to 9 percent. It’s not clear whether that drop was due to the law.

(Notably, nearly 2 percent of truancy cases in 2015-16 resulted in corporal punishment, which remains legal in Arkansas public schools despite efforts by the federal government to eliminate the practice.)

The study, which was published last week in the peer-reviewed Peabody Journal of Education, also found that schools serving more students of color were less likely to have followed the law.

Schools with 10 percent more black students than average were about 5 percentage points less likely to eliminate suspensions for truancy. That finding underscores concerns from discipline reform advocates about the disproportionate effect suspensions have on students of color.

“The types of schools that the state was likely intending to impact … were also the types of schools that failed to comply,” researcher Kaitlin Anderson of Michigan State University wrote.

Although pointing to an outlier case, the paper highlights a key challenge of changing school discipline rules: laws and mandates are no guarantee of real change. That’s especially true if educators don’t believe in the changes, schools aren’t given the resources to change, there’s no enforcement of new guidelines — or if schools don’t know that rules have changed at all.

“You might expect [suspensions for truancy] to go down to 0 percent, but that would be if all schools knew about the law, were able to comply with the law, and wanted to comply with the law,” said Anderson.

It’s not the first study to highlight the challenges of instituting, and tracking, school discipline changes. After Philadelphia banned suspensions for certain lower-level offenses, more than three-quarters of schools did not fully comply, another recent paper found. In Washington, D.C., an investigation found that some schools simply didn’t report all out-of-school suspensions amid the district’s efforts to cut down on exclusionary discipline.

In other cases, though, policy changes are leading to fewer suspensions, at least according to official numbers. Los Angeles and New York City, for instance, have reported substantial drops in out-of-school suspensions in recent years.

A slide from research presented to the Arkansas Board of Education in February 2016. ISS refers to in-school suspensions, and OSS refers to out-of-school suspension.

In Arkansas, the back and forth over the new findings began in February 2016, when the researchers presented preliminary findings to the Arkansas State Board of Education. They reminded board members that suspensions for truancy were illegal and noted that “over 100 districts were still doing this as of 2014–15.”

Nearly a year later, in January 2017, the state commissioner of education issued a brief memo, which said that “State Board members requested the department remind districts” of the ban.

Friedman said there wasn’t data on whether schools are complying with the law this year, since schools don’t submit discipline reports to the state until June.

Arkansas now has another chance to tackle the challenge of implementing a new discipline policy. Just last year, the state passed a law prohibiting most out-of-school suspensions in in elementary school.

Anderson said that it makes sense for state leaders to engage local district and school officials more when trying to change how schools do business. “Having some of those conversations is going to be more productive in the long run rather than trying to just set a hand-offs, high-level policy,” she said.