While announcing a $2.1 billion contract between New York City and the United Federation of Teachers set to extend through 2022, Mayor Bill de Blasio and new Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza detailed a plan to offer thousands of dollars in annual salary increases for educators who would commit to work in the city’s most high-need schools at a press conference last week.
The so-called “Bronx Plan” is a pointed acknowledgement of a long-standing and festering issue for the Department of Education: Though turnover has declined citywide, in certain schools and districts it is hard to get teachers to apply and even harder to get them to stay.
“And let’s face it, in the absence of that differential we’ve had a huge turnover problem and a shortage problem,” de Blasio said. “It is also about changing the culture of the entire school system to be focused on change within the school and more ownership and buy-in to the process of change.”
There has been anxiety about a potential nationwide teacher shortage for some time, spurred by projections that the U.S. could have a teacher shortage of 145,000 educators within the next seven years if trends continue unabated. The national teacher attrition rate sits at approximately 8 percent, well above that of many other developed countries, and the number of students enrolled in teacher-preparation programs has plummeted in the past several years.
At first glance, New York State and New York City seems to have avoided most of these pitfalls. Student enrollment in public schools throughout the state will decline over the next seven years, with enrollment projected to rise only in the five boroughs. In New York State, teacher turnover actually declined in the past 10 years, in contrast to the nation; a a 2014 Independent Budget Office report found that first-year teacher attrition in New York City actually had declined by half since 2004.
But these statistics mask troubling trends on the disproportionate effect teacher turnover and staff shortages have on certain schools and districts, particularly for those working with primarily black and Latino students. These shortages, coupled with a lack of staff who are teaching in the right subject certification, are affecting students and schools in an unequal way, according to Jim Malatras, the executive director of the Rockefeller Institute of State Government.
“If you just look at the data, we’re good,” he says. “But if you look at the actual breakout of the teacher turnover rate, it is significantly higher in communities of color.”
Longstanding subject shortages continue to burden NYC schools
Subject shortages in New York (and throughout the country) are a constant source of frustration for administrators; it’s difficult to find certified educators in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects, in ESL (English as a Second Language) and in special education. Kate Walsh, the executive director of the National Council on Teacher Quality, says teacher preparation programs do not tend to direct budding educators towards shortage areas.
“The shortages people are observing are largely the same shortages that have been around for decades, and there’s never been a well-functioning labor market in the teaching profession,” she says. For instance, “New York massively overproduces elementary teachers.”
New York City, on average, has shortages in a greater number of subject areas than the rest of the state, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. In 2016, New York City had shortages in all grades in the arts, bilingual education, health education, foreign languages, reading, literacy and special education, and in grades 7 through 12, there were shortages in English and the sciences.
Additionally, more New York City teachers lacked subject-specific certification compared with the state: 35 percent of technology teachers were not subject-certified, compared to 3.9 percent in the state. In New York City, 19 percent of bilingual education were not certified in the subject, compared to 10.2 percent on the state level. Additionally, 14 percent of the city’s special education teachers were not teaching with proper subject certification, compared to 1.1 percent on the state level (all the state numbers all exclude NYC statistics), according to the New York State School Boards Association.
If a district has high numbers of teachers working without subject-specific certification, it could indicate it is having difficulty filling available slots with certified applicants. Walsh says that teacher preparation programs have no incentive to push their students down those paths; instead, states or school districts need to better clarify where the gaps are.
“But districts stand back and are unwilling to assert what they need,” she says. “It’s not going to be higher education that chooses to do this, because they only care about their enrollment. They don’t want to risk losing that 18-year old that wants to teach first grade.”
Nationally, enrollment in teacher preparation programs dropped 39 percent in just four years between 2010-11 and 2014-15, according to the Rockefeller Institute for State Government. The number of students completing those programs also dropped precipitously; only 172,000 people completed teacher preparation in 2014-15, compared to 217,000 four years prior. In New York State, the drops have been even more severe. The state saw a 43.6 percent drop in enrollment in teacher preparation programs between 2008-2009 and 2015-16, from 74,344 to 41,883, according to U.S. Education Department Title II Reports data.
A question of equity
While teacher turnover rates have declined both in New York City and the state in the past decade, state data indicates that this masks inequalities in schools that are serving mostly low-income students or schools/districts working with majority black or Hispanic student populations.
Desiree Carver-Thomas, a member of the Education Quality Team at the Learning Policy Institute and an expert in teacher attrition and turnover, said the national turnover rate in Title I schools (which receive federal funding because they include a high percentage of low-income students) is almost 50 percent higher than those in non-Title I schools, with 70 percent higher rates for math and science teachers.
“Teacher turnover has serious impacts on student achievement. Sometimes there can be this idea that you have to thin the herd to get the best teacher, but that kind of churn is most likely to happen in schools with low-income students and students of color,” she says. “All students in a school can be impacted because teacher turnover can just create an unstable school environment. It’s harder to build relationships and build curriculum together.”
Approximately 4,000 New York City teachers left the profession altogether last year, according to the United Federation of Teachers, but turnover is disproportionately prevalent in some schools and areas; a Chalkbeat investigation found last year that nearly 40 percent of teachers at schools in Mayor de Blasio’s Renewal Program in 2014 had left after two years.
Turnover at charter schools was at 41 percent in 2016, compared to 18 percent in district schools, according to the Daily News, and according to data from the New York State Education Department for the 2016-17 school year, many charters’ turnover rates exceeded 50 percent. In a prior City Limits investigation of charter-school teacher turnover, educators cited the long hours and potential for burnout as one reason for the schools’ comparatively high rates of turnover.
The Learning Policy Report found that teachers in schools with 25 percent or more students of color “were more likely to move or leave teaching than teachers in schools with fewer students of color, all else being equal,” and Malatras says the Rockefeller Institute also found the most dire turnover rates were in schools serving primarily black and/or Latino students. In fact, the Institute found this to be a stronger indicator of high turnover rates than the average income level of a school’s student population.
The Rockefeller Institute broke all New York State districts into separate “clusters,” which included both high-income and low-income districts serving primarily white students, lower-income districts primarily serving mostly Hispanic students and lower-income districts primarily serving Black students. The low-poverty white districts had the lowest rate of turnover, with an average of 8.06 percent, and high-poverty white districts stood at 9.38. High-poverty districts serving Black students were nearly double the rate of low-poverty white districts, at 15.67 percent, with high-poverty districts serving primarily Hispanic students at 10.42 percent.
“There is an equity gap. Kids in communities of color are having a much different experience,” he says, while noting that the results of the study did not break out New York City districts specifically. “It sticks out that this is a race problem, even when you equalize for class.”
Where the teachers aren’t
A City Limits analysis of data from all of New York City’s 32 school districts from the New York State Education Department for the 2016-2017 school year (the most recent data available) found that particular districts consistently faced high rates of turnover, inexperienced teachers and educators teaching out of certification.
District 5, which covers much of East Harlem, had the highest rate of teacher turnover for educators with less than five years’ experience at 34 percent, and the second highest rate of total turnover at 24 percent. District 12, which includes parts of central Bronx including Tremont, Parkchester and Van Neck, had the highest rate of total turnover in the city at 26 percent, as well as the highest rate of teachers with less than three years’ experience.
On the opposite end of the scale, Staten Island’s District 31 had the lowest teacher turnover rate for educators with less than five years’ experience and total turnover (at 6 and 9 percent, respectively), followed in both cases by District 26, which includes Bayside, Bay Terrace, Springfield Gardens and a large swath of northeast Queens.
Any analysis of this data on school districts carries an array of caveats, chief among them being that New York City districts can include vastly different kinds of schools facing different challenges, serving students from different demographic backgrounds and income levels. Nevertheless, certain districts tend to consistently have the highest rates of turnover, teachers working with fewer years of experience and educators teaching outside of their certification.
It is a trend that DeJohn Jones, a parent leader with the New Settlement Apartments Parent Action Committee, said he witnessed first hand. Testifying before a City Council Education Committee oversight hearing on teacher retention on Jan. 24, 2017, he said he’d approached the principal at his daughter’s school in District 9 in the Bronx to ask why a beloved teacher had left the school after only one year.
“When I asked him why the teacher left, he told me that she had completed her Master’s program and now was going to teach in a different district,” he said. “He stated that it was the revolving door of teachers, staying only to get their Master’s and then moving to better schools.”
NYC School Districts
U.S. DOE Data, 2015-2016
Thandi Center, the senior director for New York City at the New Teacher Center also saw this cycling of young educators who would work for a year as new teachers in parts of the Bronx or Brooklyn only to move to other schools and districts. From speaking to educators, she found that city teachers do not often leave the profession because they are underpaid, but believe they they lack stable support from leadership in order to adequately help their students, as well as feeling they lack the developmentally appropriate professional support they need at the outset of their careers. She said she heard from some teachers who felt that they were failing their students everyday, and thought leaving the classroom was the only possible option.
But the constant churn of inexperienced teachers year in and out can take a sizable toll on a school’s students and environment, Center says.
“We know it takes three to five years for teachers to get confident in their trade, and if every year that child is experiencing a first-year teacher, we know the damage it does,” she says. “You have three years of amateur, young teachers in a row and you’re going to see those significant achievement gaps.”
Teachers who enter the classroom through alternative certification pathways into the classroom tend to have a 25 percent higher turnover rate than other teachers, according to Carver-Thomas. In New York City, many of these pathways let students earn their certification while teaching in the classroom (some of the most famous include New York City Teaching Fellows, Teach for America, New York City Teachers Collective and a variety of others).
Ostensibly, alternative certification pathways help nascent teachers get certified while working, particularly those who could not afford to go without an income during teacher training. The Learning Policy Institute controlled for characteristics like age and experience, and found that alternative certification educators left the classroom (whether for another school or out of teaching altogether) at higher rates. The report also found that teachers from alternative certification pathways accounted for 21 percent of teachers at schools with the greatest concentrations of students of color, compared to less than 9 percent for those schools with a mostly white student population.
“There’s always a potential that there’s a variable we didn’t account for, but based on our best thinking, it seems that alternative certification is associated with higher turnover rate regardless of age,” she says. “Those who come through alternative certification pathways tend to have less experience and coursework, though not all alternative certification pathways are built the same.”
Calls for solutions grow
In all, the Learning Policy Institute’s report found that 30 percent of teachers who left the profession throughout the country in 2012-2013 did so by retiring, though they did not always cite retirement as the reason for their decision (a teacher may have been eligible for retirement but left for another reason). 30 percent of teachers who left the classroom were working in a school or district in some capacity, while 8 percent took jobs outside of education altogether.
Two-thirds of teachers who left for other schools cited dissatisfaction for their reason for leaving, including concerns about a school’s administration, or their lack of influence in decisions and conditions of their school, including the school’s facilities and available resources. Eighteen percent of those who left the profession cited financial reasons, including the need for a higher salary; this is a particularly difficult issue outside of New York, where median salaries for teachers can be as low as about $40,000 in states like South Dakota or Oklahoma.
Continuous turnover can contribute to what Carver-Thomas calls the “leaky bucket” problem, where an unstable working environment caused by inexperienced teachers and high turnover only exacerbates those problems with every passing year. In City Council testimony, representatives of the Children’s Defense Fund said that teachers in high-poverty New York City schools move to low-poverty schools in larger numbers, and there is a “steady decline” in turnover rates once those teachers start working in low-poverty schools. The Fund estimated that the cost of replacing a teacher lost due to turnover can be about $15,000 per teacher.
“It doesn’t have to be this way. We can do better,” Karen Aflord, the Vice President of Elementary Education for the United Federation of Teachers, wrote in testimony for the 2017 oversight hearing. “[R]eports of teacher shortages around the nation are cropping up. In New York City, we’ve been lucky to avoid this so far, but we can’t keep churning new teachers at the rate we do. It’s a waste of money bringing them on board—hiring and training isn’t free—and it’s tumultuous for a school to have constant turnover.”
The de Blasio administration is hoping the Bronx Plan can finally address some of the gaps in teacher turnover rates throughout the city. In the coming months, the chancellor will determine that as many as 180 schools citywide will receive a “hard-to-staff differential” in order to offer teachers an additional $5,000 to $8,000 per year to fill open positions in high-need schools; 120 of these schools will be “Collaborative Schools,” receiving additional support and funding for innovation measures.
“It’s understandable that it’s hard to get teachers to go in to environments that are the toughest. And sometimes that’s just because of geography alone and some communities being farther away from mass transportation or farther away from where most people live and sometimes it’s about a history of schools struggling to succeed,” the mayor said. “And you know there are some people who say ‘I’ll go to a place that’s historically struggled and try to make a difference,’ but there’s a lot of people that legitimately say ‘I want to go someplace where I feel have a decent chance succeeding.’ So this is a historic problem; my complaint is that over the years there was not enough innovation brought to bear to address it.”
How the Bronx Plan may affect high teacher turnover rates in schools serving student communities of color will be analyzed in the years to come, but David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, expressed surprise that the UFT agreed to differential pay for teachers in different locations. He also stressed that salary issues were not often at the forefront of teacher’s concerns in high-need schools and districts.
“The main issue is the difficult working conditions in some of these schools brought on by large class sizes with concentrations of students with the greatest challenges,” he says. “Whether a salary increment will increase the staffing stability or improve the learning of those children is open to question.”