Chasing Experienced Teachers From the Classroom

Every public school student deserves access to a highly-qualified, experienced educator. But experience may matter more at lower-performing priority schools, where students often enter classrooms suffering from significant skills gaps and a variety of social issues that interfere with learning. That’s why many educators are so baffled by a federal plan that they say is destined to chase the most experienced teachers out of the schools that need them most.

From Central Falls, RI to Savannah, GA, lower-performing schools across the country have begun announcing plans to fire their teaching staffs in order to qualify for federal School Improvement Grants. To qualify for a School Improvement Grant, schools must select from one of four federally-mandated intervention models, including the so-called “turnaround” model, where the entire teaching staff is fired and no more than half are rehired.

The turnaround model rests on a simple but perhaps badly flawed assumption: That schools will be able to fire teachers who are not making the grade and replace them with more qualified educators. But according to a recent discussion on the NEA Priority Schools Campaign Facebook page, the turnaround model is likely to result in inexperienced educators – including many recent graduates with no teaching experience – replacing experienced teachers.

Many lower-performing priority schools are cash-strapped and prefer to fill their teaching vacancies with newer teachers, who can be paid less and are eager to land their first jobs. A New York Times story just weeks before the start of the school year discussed how principals’ preference for hiring less costly new teachers was interfering with job placements and transfers throughout the New York City school system, resulting in 1,800 teaching vacancies. In fact, many priority schools throughout the country hire a greater percentage of new teachers than veteran teachers, primarily because of cost considerations.

The end result of the turnaround model, many educators warn, is that experienced teachers will likely be replaced with recent graduates. And while new teachers are the future of education and bring enthusiasm to the classroom, replacing an experienced teaching staff with a less experienced staff is hardly a proven reform model.

“I am not sure why it’s always ‘Get rid of experienced teachers and bring in new ones,’” said Tami Bighead, a middle school teacher from Kingman, AZ. “When a school fails year after year, it’s not just staff, but parents, students and the community that need to be held accountable.”

Bighead knows something about teaching in priority schools. She began her career in the Compton section of Los Angeles County, and said her first classroom was in a portable building with no teaching manuals or resources, and that some of the students she was assigned had serious psychological and behavioral problems. She almost quit.

In fact, newer teachers at many priority schools have complained about a lack of support and professional development. Like Bighead, they are sometimes handed some of the most challenging teaching assignments in the school.

The fact that teaching in priority schools can be such a challenge is one of the reasons that veteran teachers must be available as mentors, said Tammy Harvey Fick, an elementary teacher at a Title I school in Prince William County, VA.

“The length of time a person has been in the classroom does not accurately reflect their level of performance,” she said. “On the other side of that coin, however, is the fact that enthusiasm and high energy level does not replace learned experiences from the classroom. New teachers are an asset for any school, but “seasoned” teachers are also necessary for guidance.”

The other question is how willing “seasoned” teachers will be to take jobs in schools that just fired their teaching staffs.

“Why would anyone ever choose to teach in one of these schools if they think there is a 50 percent chance they are going to be fired?” Congressman Mark Souder of Indiana asked during a recent hearing of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

The answer is simple, many educators say. They won’t.