Ask Reading Kingdom: Why are so many good teachers quitting?

When the term “dropout” appears, we usually think of students who leave school before graduating. The nation is rightly concerned about our high student dropout rate. But there is another dropout rate that plagues education. It is the dropout rate for teachers. Within five years of starting their careers, almost 20% leave the profession. The percentage is even higher in poor, urban schools—where the losses are 50% higher than in more affluent schools.

The losses extend beyond those active in the profession. Fewer graduates are planning to enter teaching. For example, in 2001, 77,700 graduates were enrolled in teaching programs in California. By 2012, that number had dropped to 19,933.

Many factors have led to this bleak situation. Teachers regularly cite long hours and low pay as contributing to their dissatisfaction. American teachers have heavier teaching loads than educators in many other countries and very few hours(three to five in most schools) for learning and leadership. By contrast, teachers in Finland, Singapore and South Korea spend from 15 to 25 hours each week working to improve their craft.

Another significant factor in the dropout rate involves teachers having little say over key decisions affecting classrooms. Their workload is steadily increased by rules and regulations that are imposed upon them such as the onerous demands of the Common Core standards that have been adopted by many states. Similarly, under the No Child Left Behind Act, the focus and resources went to building up external accountability systems, tests and teacher evaluation forms. In other words, the demands on teachers were once again increased, while providing little of the professional support they need.

There is an interesting case in San Francisco where an urban, low-income school achieved significant positive changes. After trying, and failing, with a tough approach of mass staff firings and tight accountability measures, the administrators tried supporting teachers. They implemented measures such as paying them for cooperatively planning lessons, designing assessments to gauge student skills and then adjusting instruction and analyzing videos to determine what kind of teaching led to greater success. The result was that teacher morale and retention rates went up and student achievement rates went up as well. The graduation rate went from among the lowest in the district, at 60%, to 82%.

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