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Schools study ways to keep teachers

Teacher Matt Bragman stands in front of a classroom

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: School is probably the last thing on the minds of most kids right now. They're off living it up at camp or just hanging around doing whatever it is kids do during summer these days.

But back in the classroom it's a different story. Administrators are plugging away trying to find enough teachers for the fall. It's a costly and time-consuming process. One that's made worse by high levels of teacher turnover.

The temptation might be to throw cash at the problem. The theory being that if you pay them more, teachers will stick around, which would save money in the long run. But Marketplace's Jeff Tyler reports money's not the answer — or the problem.

Jeff Tyler: A shortage in qualified math, science and special-ed teachers has forced administrators in the Los Angeles Unified School District to recruit from abroad.

Deborah Ignagni oversees that process. She says the district recruits teachers from Canada, India and the Philippines.

Deborah Ignagni: When you bring people in from the Philippines, oftentimes they're making five, six, seven, eight times as much as they were making in their own countries.

It may be a good deal for foreign teachers, but constant recruitment is a big drain on resources. A recent study by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future found that teacher turnover costs the nation about $7 billion a year. At the same time, the study found, most districts don't have systems to track or control the nation's estimated 17 percent annual turnover.

After 11 years of teaching high school biology, Greg Saltzberg recently threw in the towel.

Greg Saltzberg: At some point, you have to ask yourself, you know, "What am I doing here?" When you don't feel like the people or the infrastructure that's set up to help you — such as administrators, such as people downtown in district offices — are making decisions that are making your job harder instead of easier.

Saddled with increased bureaucratic paperwork and administrative tasks, Saltzberg lost his devotion to the profession.

Saltzberg: It's certainly not the money. And if it's not the money, it's gotta be, you know, you've got to be treated well, I think.

That view reflects the results of a survey by the Center for Teacher Quality at California State University, where Ken Futernick is director of K-through-12 studies.

Ken Futernick: What we found is that working conditions matter a lot more than compensation.

Futernick found that poor administrative and managerial practices are driving teachers away.

Futernick: Endless interruptions in their classroom. Unnecessary paperwork. Meetings that had no purpose. Teachers really were saying that they didn't have time to teach because they were being asked to do all these other things that didn't seem very relevant to their teaching.

In Los Angeles, where 35 percent of new teachers quit within the first five years, the district is experimenting with ways to keep them on the job. Human Resources Administrator Deborah Ignagni says the district has hired seasoned educators to act as mentors for rookie teachers.

Ignagni: That person is a fulltime person assigned to that school, whose sole job it is to work with those new teachers, to help improve that retention — especially during the first and second year, to get them over that hump and into their third year of teaching.

Ken Futernick says school districts in North Carolina, Arizona and Nevada are following the example set by the private sector, where human resource departments do exit interviews to find out why employees leave.

Futernick: Surveying their teachers before they've left, to find out how satisfied they are, how effective they think they can be, what the district and school can do to enable them to be more effective, and ultimately prevent them from leaving.

He says districts could keep more teachers in the classroom without spending lots of money by simply fine-tuning their administration.

In Los Angeles, I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.
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