When teachers launch their careers at Metro Nashville Public Schools, many walk through proverbial revolving doors, accepting jobs as classroom instructors at the state’s second-largest school district but leaving shortly thereafter.
Of all Metro teachers hired just five years ago, only 62 percent still teach in the school district. The others, nearly two out of every five teachers, either took teaching positions in different systems or quit the profession altogether. Approximately 30 percent made their exit around their third year.
Metro’s low teacher retention rate is a phenomenon found in other urban school districts across the nation. In Middle Tennessee, the general consensus is that the area’s more affluent donut counties like Williamson or Rutherford have greater success in getting their teachers to stick around. A Tennessee Education Department representative told The City Paper the state doesn’t have such data for all school districts readily available. Parameters used by individual school systems to measure their turnover or retention rates tend to vary, but the urban-suburban rift is understood as a general rule.
To look simply at teacher pay, often a tempting indicator, doesn’t tell the story. At Metro, teachers with a bachelor’s degree and no prior experience start at salaries of $34,059 per year, which is actually more than the $33,485 for the same subset at Williamson County Schools, looking at one nearby district as an example.
The difference, most educators agree, is that teachers in Metro are accepting virtually the same salaries to take on much more demanding workloads that include challenges inherent in urban districts. They’re teaching students who come from decidedly poorer families. Three-fourths of Metro students qualify for federal free and reduced-price lunches. The Metro student population is also diverse, with 22 percent speaking first languages other than English. All these issues manifest in the classroom.
“It is difficult to teach in urban school districts,” said Erick Huth, president of the Metro Nashville Education Association, the local teachers’ union. “All of our teaching candidates are not familiar with the problems associated with generational poverty before they come to our schools. Some of them find out that it is a much more difficult job than they envisioned.”
For Metro schools, which is trying to engineer a seismic turnaround in both student achievement and public perception, retaining teachers — specifically top-tier instructors — is crucial.
Director of Schools Jesse Register, with an assist from Mayor Karl Dean, last August kicked off a new initiative dubbed ASSET, or Achieving Student Success through Effective Teaching. Unveiled at a carefully crafted ceremony inside the downtown Hilton Hotel, the plan is the school district’s answer to its inability to attract and retain the best teachers.
Nearly eight months after the creation of ASSET, there is a potpourri of programs aimed at retaining top teachers. School officials are trying to offer more leadership opportunities for teachers, allowing them to take on additional roles. The district is also taking advantage of federal grant dollars to offer financial incentives to teachers who perform well in some of the district’s high-poverty, low-performing schools. Meanwhile, since his arrival two years ago, Register has installed new principals at several schools, partly to improve morale.
These changes come with some lofty goals. While Register has acknowledged Metro will never be the easiest place to teach, he says he wants it to be a place where teachers seek to enter, not leave. He would like to shut the revolving door.
The unveiling of ASSET made headlines for what it lacked — namely, a comprehensive performance-based pay plan to reward teachers whose students achieve high test scores. A year before, Register and Dean had created a committee to focus specifically on this topic.
In fact, Metro is taking advantage of $36 million in federal grant dollars recently awarded to the state to offer financial incentives to effective teachers at 22 high-poverty Metro schools — elementary, middle and high schools. The five-year program runs through 2015, with the current year serving as a planning period.
“In Metro Nashville, [the Tennessee Teacher Incentive Fund] is part of our human capital development plan, as well as part of our turning around low-performing schools plan — to be able to recruit, retain and reward the best educators in the schools where they are needed most,” said Merrie Clark, grant management coordinator at Metro schools.
This month, schools officials are finalizing performance criteria to determine how teachers and principals can receive bonuses, which could range between $1,500 and $10,000 per year. Approximately 1,500 teachers will be eligible to cash in beginning next school year. Student achievement will play a part in the evaluation. Other factors could include a teacher’s willingness to take part in professional development training, fill difficult-to-staff positions and assume additional responsibilities such as mentoring students. Metro’s teachers’ union is involved in the discussions.
Under the umbrella of ASSET, the district is in the process of creating its “Teacher Leadership Institute,” offered to educators in their third year at Metro who want to take on more responsibility. Promotion possibilities could include becoming what school officials call team leaders, grade chairs or instructional coaches, according to June Keel, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources, who is helping oversee the program.
The idea is to offer something more to the best and the brightest to keep them in Metro before they take their skills to a different field. One hundred and fifteen teachers across the county applied for the program. The district is currently whittling the list down to identify a final group of 30 participants by May 3. Taking advantage of federal “Race to the Top” dollars, selected teachers will go through yearlong leadership training while continuing their normal class schedules.
Also new, Metro schools and Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development partnered last fall to offer Metro middle school teachers a chance to earn a master’s degree. Under “Masters in Teaching and Learning in Urban Schools,” 15 selected teachers have been attending two nightly master’s-level classes per week focused on literacy, science or math, while also performing normal teaching duties at Bailey, Isaac Litton and Wright middle schools. The first group of teachers, committed to five years of teaching in Metro, is entering its second semester.
According to Sharon Yates, a professor at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College, subject matter and content are delivered to teachers within the broader framework of urban schools. An “urban seminar” covers issues unique to the inner city. The goal of the partnership is to improve the teaching practices of instructors who confront some of the most demanding daily challenges.
Two years ago, selective organizations such as Teach For America and The New Teacher Project arrived here, allowing recent graduates and others from outside academia to join the teaching ranks. Whether their performance exceeds that of traditional teachers has long been a source of debate. Even more curiosity has been directed at whether teachers from these groups continue to work in their districts or leave after their two-year teaching requirements end.
Right now, teachers are the focal point of education reform on the state level. New state-mandated teacher evaluations are already on their way. In addition, Gov. Bill Haslam recently enjoyed his first legislative victory when a bill making it harder for teachers to gain tenure cleared the state House. Another Republican measure that would end the ability of teachers’ unions to collectively bargain is the subject of ongoing debate.
Critics say statewide plans only add to the burden of teachers, who are modestly paid but face increasing pressure. How the state measures play into teacher retention efforts is unclear.
“I think our turnover is already so bad in Nashville that it will have a minimal effect,” said Huth. “It may have a greater effect statewide, but we have anywhere from 400 to 800 positions we need to fill every year.”