New Haven’s public schools have tapped two new “teacher mentors” to help 18 newly hired science teachers, as part of an effort to stop science teachers from leaving the system in droves.
Richard Therrien, the school system’s science supervisor, outlined the problem—and introduced two new people aiming to help fix it—at an orientation session for new science teachers at Hill Regional Career High.
This year, 18 of 120 science teachers are new to the district—the highest number in five years, according to Therrien.
Teacher turnover among science teachers has remained high in New Haven, reflecting a national challenge that’s particularly acute in urban districts. New Haven is beginning to examine the problem and look for solutions as part of a $53 million federally backed effort to improve the way it develops and retains teachers.
Therrien, who’s entering his eighth year as science supervisor, offered a few jarring statistics to illustrate the problem.
In his first seven years, from 2006 to 20012, Therrien hired 115 new science teachers. Fifty-five of them have already left. Of those, the vast majority—82 percent—lasted no longer than two years. At least 11 teachers left midway through their first year, some after only a few months.
In a given year, New Haven loses 10 to 30 percent of its science teachers, a rate he said is higher than that of New Haven’s regular teachers. (School officials did not produce an overall teacher turnover rate for New Haven as of press time.)
The exodus has left New Haven with few veteran science teachers. Of 36 7th-and-8th-grade science teachers, only four have been teaching in New Haven for longer than seven years, Therrien said.
Of the 71 high school science teachers, 27 have been teaching in New Haven longer than seven years, according to Therrien.
The problem isn’t unique to New Haven, according to Richard M. Ingersoll, a professor at the University of Penn Graduate School of Education who studies science teacher retention. He said urban and high-poverty districts have an especially hard time hanging on to science teachers, who often flee to wealthier towns or leave the profession for more lucrative jobs in other science-related fields.
The New Crew
The problem has sent Therrien scrambling each year to find and train new teachers. Every year, he conducts an orientation to get them up to speed on topics like New Haven’s curriculum, job evaluations, and how to keep kids from pulling the safety shower and flooding the room.
Therrien introduced himself to the latest crop of newcomers Thursday afternoon at a science lab in Career High’s Room 209. Teachers and their new colleagues filled rows of student-sized desks. Therrien brought power bars to fortify them for what promised to be an up-to-three-hour rule-learning session.
The group included some transfers from other districts, such as Nancy Toomey (pictured conducting an experiment about reaction time). With 16 years’ experience, Toomey was by far the most veteran teacher in the group. Some others were transferring from Bridgeport. Another came from New Britain’s schools, where class size is 32 (compared to 27 in New Haven).
Gabriel Helland, 39 (pictured at the top of this story), came to teaching as a second career. Helland, of New Haven, graduated from Wilbur Cross High in 1992; he worked as a chemist before making the switch to teaching. He’ll be a first-year teacher at Hillhouse High. He was one of just two New Haveners in the batch of 18.
The new hires represent significant turnover at individual schools, in some cases. Wilbur Cross is getting six new science teachers. Four replace departed teachers. Two (including Evan Brown, pictured at the top of this story) are filling positions at the new Internationals Academy at Cross. Others are replacing teachers who transferred out, resigned, or left after completing a two-year commitment through Teach for America (TFA), a national agency that places bright young people from elite universities into high-needs schools after a summer crash course in teaching.
Five first-year teachers (including Julia Rodi and Keeler Otero, pictured) join New Haven schools through TFA. TFA requires teachers to make a two-year commitment.
First-year teacher and TFA-er Chris Finan, 22, of New Jersey, plans to teach at Clinton Avenue School. He replaces Mara Bensson, a former TFA teacher who left after two years. Bensson replaced yet another TFA member, according to Therrien. Finan said he’s trying out teaching to see if he wants to pursue it as a long-term career.
Mr. & Ms. Mentor
Therrien has been battling attrition for years. This year, he offered a new solution: “teacher mentors” whose sole job will be to support new science teachers. The mentors, Matthew Erickson of Edgewood School and Lana Rowan of Wilbur Cross High (pictured), introduced themselves Thursday to the group.
“I’m your resource,” Erickson said.
Rowan will spend a lot of time helping six new teachers at Cross. Erickson will focus on middle school. They’ll be available to take phone calls, help teachers plan lessons, or even help out in a struggling teacher’s classroom for a week. The new “mentor” jobs are being paid for through the $53 million federal Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) grant, which aims in part to create new ways for teachers to take leadership roles without leaving the classroom to be administrators. Rowan and Erickson won’t grade their mentees through the formal teacher evaluations; they’ll only support them.
As part of the $53 million plan, New Haven will begin studying exactly which teachers are leaving city schools, and why. The district plans to start issuing exit polls to departing teachers, according to New Haven teachers union President David Cicarella.
The mentoring duo gave out their cell phone numbers before rushing back to teacher leadership boot camp at the Yale Law School, also paid for by TIF.
Therrien said new science teachers they’re helping can feel isolated: One new teacher, for example, will be the only person teaching physics at Wilbur Cross. He hopes the extra support helps teachers make it past the two-year mark, which so many have failed to do.
If the new mentors succeed at their job, he said, they’ll eliminate the need for the job, because teachers will stay on with the district, eliminating the need for newcomers.
A National Problem
The mentors will confront what’s become a national problem: high attrition among science teachers in urban districts, and among beginning science teachers everywhere.
Over 18 percent of all science teachers nationally leave the profession entirely after just one year, compared to 12 percent of other beginning teachers, according to Professor Ingersoll.
“Science teachers are far more likely than others to never have had any practice or student teaching in front of a class” before the first day of school, because they’re approaching the job through alternate routes to certification, Ingersoll said. “Those teachers who haven’t had any practice teaching are very likely to leave after one year.”
His research has shown that districts like New Haven lose science teachers more than more affluent places. Science teachers who stay in the profession tend to migrate from urban to suburban, from high-minority to low-minority, and from poor to less-poor schools. Science teachers tend to flee schools with “worse organizational management” and lower salaries.
“Good teachers are cherry-picked off by more affluent suburbs,” which pay teachers more, he said.
Other top reasons science teachers leave include “student discipline problems” and inadequate professional development, said Ingersoll, who examined exit surveys from thousands of science teachers nationwide.
For similar reasons, urban districts face turnover rates as high as 20 percent per year, much higher than the suburbs, Ingersoll said.
Union President Cicarella agreed that New Haven has had a tougher time retaining science teachers compared to other disciplines. He said science teachers tend to leave for two main reasons: They can make more money in the private sector. And they complain about a lack of autonomy in the classroom.
Scientists trying out teaching as a second career discover that “as teachers, they’re not in control of their situation,” Cicarella said. As teachers, they make less money and put up with more rules governing how they have to do their jobs. In New Haven, they have to keep on pace with a prescribed curriculum and put kids through standardized tests. “A lot of them come in and say, this is ridiculous,” Cicarella observed.
Melodie Peters, president of Connecticut chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, offered two other theories on why experienced teachers may leave statewide: “the growing emphasis on standardized testing” and “top-down reforms being pushed by some politicians and administrators that shut out educators and parents from what should be a collaborative effort.”
Citing a supposed shortage in math and science teachers nationwide, and a need to train kids for emerging careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), President Obama has launched a plan to train 10,000 new math and science teachers every year for 10 years.
That’s laudable, said Ingersoll, but it doesn’t address the problem: “We lose 26,000 math and science teachers every year, only a small part of which are retirements.” Contrary to common belief, his research shows there isn’t a shortage of new math and science teachers nationwide. There are plenty of new teachers, he argues; the problem is that too many leave the profession before retirement.
Urban districts do face shortages in math and science teacher applicants, however, because they offer lower pay and more difficult work environments, Ingersoll has found.
Therrien said New Haven used to face an acute shortage in middle-school science teachers. The shortage got so bad one year that he had only 16 applicants for 12 spots, he recalled. That particular shortage has subsided (middle-school science is now ranked 36th on the state’ list of shortage areas for teachers). But the problem remains: So many science teachers leave each year that it calls for a constant supply of teachers streaming in New Haven’s doors.
One solution has been to draw from Teach For America, which offers bright young teachers with deep knowledge of physics, chemistry or biology.
TFA recruits have alleviated short-term hiring needs, but have also exacerbated turnover. TFA requires teachers to make a two-year commitment; most leave after that.
Therrien said he has hired 25 new science teachers from TFA since 2006.
Of the 17 TFA recruits hired in Therrien’s first six years, nine left after fulfilling their two-year commitment and four left after serving one year or less. Only four made it to Year 3 or beyond.
Anthony Cody, an education blogger who taught for 24 years at Oakland schools, argues that schools form a “bad addiction” by using TFA to fill vacancies. Two years after the TFA recruits come, they’re gone, sending the school district back to square one, and putting a strain on veteran teachers who invested energy on helping them.
The continual TFA exodus creates a pattern of disruption in schools like Wexler/Grant, where kids have gotten used to seeing new TFA science teachers at least every two years. TFA science teacher Kaitlyn Shorrock (pictured) rose to be one of the top teachers at that school, then left to take a Fullbrightscholarship after two years, replaced by another TFA recruit.
Therrien said New Haven’s partnership with TFA in science got a rocky start: In the first two years, four TFA science recruits left after teaching for one year or less. But starting in 2009, the quality of the recruits became quite good, and he has been able to count on the program for bringing quality instruction. Though the TFA recruits leave after two years, kids are getting excellent instruction during those two years, he argued.
He said the disruption on kids is often minimal, because kids don’t have science teachers for multiple years in a row.
Therrien said he never forces a principal to take a TFA recruit. He gives principals a range of options, and they choose TFA if they’re comfortable with it. TFA departures account for less than half of science teacher departures, he added.
Cicarella said he doesn’t object to the program. He even supported his own daughter’s decision to teach with TFA.
“I like the TFA corps. They have excellent academic backgrounds,” he said. But he said no matter how good teachers are, there’s no way they’re reaching their potential in their beginning years.
“They can’t possibly be best in Year 1,” he said.
A Ripple Effect
That’s one main reason Cicarella argued that turnover hurts kids: They would get better instruction from teachers who stay more than two years.
Some turnover is healthy, argued Ingersoll, a former public and private-school teacher: “You’d never want 100 percent retention. You’d want people who aren’t fitting or aren’t working out to move on. You want fresh blood in there.”
Therrien agreed: “There are many cases of teachers deciding science teaching—or teaching in New Haven—isn’t for them, and we are in many cases OK with that,” he said.
But too much turnover forces school districts to expend too much time and money recruiting, training and developing new teachers, Ingersoll argued. And it hurts a school’s effort to build a sense of stability and community for kids who often don’t have stable adult figures in their lives.
A school “is not a factory. It should be more like a family. If you’ve got teachers coming out every year in large numbers, that’s disruptive,” Ingersoll argued.
High turnover also has a ripple effect across a school that hurts student learning, argues Susanna Loeb of the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Loeb and colleagues conducted 850,000 observations of students in the 4th and 5th grades of New York City schools over the course of eight years. They found that a school’s teacher turnover rate was a significant factor —about as significant factor as poverty—hurting student test scores.
Ingersoll said bringing in mentors, as New Haven is doing, is a good start to addressing the problem. “Its a big need,” he said. Science teachers in particular get so much training in subject knowledge that they have less preparation on how to teach. For 40 percent of science teachers across the country, Ingersoll said, “Day 1 was the first day they had taught teenagers.”
Cody, the former Oakland teacher, created a mentoring program there to address a high churn of science teachers in a small, 10-person department. The program paired experienced science teachers with rookies, built a “family” feeling within the department, and cut turnover to zero, he said.
Ingersoll said his research backs up the notion that mentoring works. It’s “very important to have had some support, some mentoring, some collaboration time” with other teachers. “Those teachers who get that are much more likely to stick around.”
Therrien said he’s hopeful about the year ahead: “We had a great group of applicants this summer, especially in middle school and certain subjects, more than usual, so I remain very optimistic about the potential of those 18 teachers to really help students learn science.”