Frustration with school leaders, not pay, forces teachers out

SACRAMENTO — Nicolle Miller could handle the overcrowded classrooms, the lack of supplies and even the shortage of books for her seventh- and eighth-grade students at an Anaheim middle school.

What she found most discouraging was the lack of support.

“I wanted to make a difference, I wanted to help these kids. A lot of times I would feel that I wasn’t allowed to do certain things,” to teach her mostly poor, non-English-speaking students at South Junior High.

“It was this constant, ’If you don’t do better, you’re going to lose your job.”’

Similar frustrations with administrators and unnecessary bureaucracy drive thousands of teachers out of the profession every year, according to a study of nearly 2,000 California teachers released Thursday by California State University’s Center for Teacher Quality.

Those who quit overwhelmingly cited bureaucratic impediments to teaching, such as excessive paperwork, too much classroom interruption and too many restrictions on teaching.

“They want bureaucratic systems to be in place, but they want them to be supportive and responsive, rather than interfering and burdensome,” said Ken Futernick, director of K-12 studies for the center and the study’s principal author.

About one in five teachers typically quit within the first five years, according to national studies, a condition that has long been a source of frustration for school districts and education schools.It leaves schools with too many inexperienced teachers, who typically are concentrated in schools with the highest numbers of poor and minority students.

Despite the high rate of attrition, virtually no schools have adopted the standard business practice of exit interviews to survey teachers about why they’re leaving, Futernick said. Doing exit interviews could help schools and districts pinpoint problems with administrators and school cultures at virtually no cost, he said.

A third of California’s 300,000 teachers are expected to retire over the next decade, widening a teacher shortage that is expected to grow to about 33,000 by 2015. Retaining those who already are trained and in the classroom is crucial, educators say.

The state spends about $455 million a year to train and retain its public school teachers, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell said.

Futernick and other researchers who were part of a landmark package of studies on California’s education system that was released last month recommend more funding. But he said a cash infusion that isn’t targeted toward improving school conditions won’t solve the most pressing problems.

Those studies, requested by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, O’Connell and other state leaders, recommended increasing K-12 funding by as much as 40 percent. The recommendation has received a lukewarm response in a state that already devotes nearly half its budget to education.The studies also said more money alone won’t solve public education’s myriad problems.

Similarly, Futernick said programs that offer financial incentives for qualified teachers to work in high-poverty or low-performing schools won’t by themselves keep teachers there. Schwarzenegger has in the past referred to such incentives as “combat pay.”

“Combat pay is ill-advised, because it assumes that these schools are combat zones, that they’re hopelessly bad places to work,” rather than addressing the problems in those schools that make them hard to staff, Futernick said. “In many schools, the only teachers we can get are ones who have no preparation or experience.”

Teachers want a say in making decisions, a feeling of camaraderie with staff and a sense of purpose, the study said. But those steps also have to be meaningful.

At the elementary school where Manuel Carrasco used to teach in Riverside County, teacher panels were formed to review curriculum, textbooks and teaching methods. But he said they were merely window-dressing. Suggestions were ignored, he said.

One committee rejected a proposal to use “whole language” to teach reading — an approach now seen as largely ineffective — but the principal adopted it, anyway. A similar decision was made with the math curriculum, he said.

“There was the appearance of committees and there was lip service. ... Were our meetings meaningful? No. Was our voice meaningful? No,” said Carrasco, who quit in 2000.

Miller, of Anaheim, left in 2001, saying she had burned out. She now works in children’s ministries at her church and sometimes does substitute teaching at the private school her children attend.

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