Schools Tackle Science Teacher Exodus

Melissa Bailey PhotoNew 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.”

A Shortage?

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.

TFA “Addiction”

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.

Melissa Bailey PhotoThe 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.”

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posted by: RichTherrn on August 27, 2013  8:56am

A couple quick additional points, that I may not have emphasized:
- Science teachers in New Haven also have great opportunities for professional development and get support from the community through our partnerships with all the local universities, UNH, SCSU, QU, and Yale University ONHSA Science Community Outreach, as well as the great experienced science teachers within the district. Their help is invaluable!
- Most new teachers teach the middle grades, and early high school grades, not always the “honors” and upper elective courses, so that is why the curriculua may feel less flexible. Foundational courses have some basic science content and skills that research shows all students need, which isn’t always the favorite topics/interest of every science teacher to teach.
-Ultimately, our goal is for each student each year to have a good science teacher for them to learn the essential science skills they need for their future. So whatever it takes to make that happens what we pursue.
-Extra power bars on my desk, should in science teachers need this week!
-Richard Therrien
-NHPS Science Supervisor

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on August 27, 2013  9:27am

Keep drinking the kool-aid.

Teach For America Is A Dangerous Scam.

From the Mailbag: Teach For America Defector Speaks.

A new look at Teach for America
By Valerie Strauss

posted by: anonymous on August 27, 2013  11:20am

Would turnover be lower if we hired more New Haven residents, and provided teachers with major housing incentives if they agreed to stay and work in New Haven for 10 years?

Something like this, but with some teeth to it:

posted by: parejkoj on August 27, 2013  2:38pm

Having a good mentor is a vital part of a new teacher’s first year. I’m surprised the district hasn’t done this yet, and only for science, but it’s a good start. I hope the mentoring program is expanded.

posted by: Teachergal on August 27, 2013  2:59pm

Science teachers will stay if they do t have to deal with the discipline problems that 7/8th grade students bring to the plate.  I can only speak to what I’ve seen, lack of support with discipline problems, lack of supplies, lack of support for students lacking basic skills in reading and math, etc. turn that around and teachers will stay and students will learn.

Mr. Theirren, I know you are working hard to provide PD but no amount of PD wii change what students bring to the plate. If they aren’t prepared with basic skills to handle a subject, they will become frustrated and act out, therefore preventing themselves and others from learning. Managing today’s urban, middle school student and teaching them is a monumental task. Unless you’ve walked in those shoes you shouldn’t talk. If science classes were good classes to be in then teachers would stay, plain and simple. I’m sure there is not the same turnover in all NHPS.

posted by: Brutus2011 on August 27, 2013  3:51pm

This is the same thing over and over again.

The problem with science teacher turnover, indeed all teacher turnover, is the buck wild school building learning environments.

Administrators do not risk their 6 figure salaries to support their teachers.

The kids intuitively know they can get away with pitting the adults against each other even if they don’t know why.

The teacher’s union does not insist the teachers get the support they need because the mayor and his administrators want it that way and the union management is beholden to the administrators. 


Then the teachers will remain plentiful scapegoats and draw attention from the abject failure of leadership from the top.

I tell you what, when NHPS starts recruiting and hiring qualified community members to staff our schools, then that is a signal that real and effective reform is underway.

Until then, it is business as usual dressed up in a different form to fool the public who unfortunately is far too easily duped.

posted by: Gauss on August 27, 2013  4:17pm

Perhaps instead of spending 53 million to study why science teachers leave the school district could increase the salaries for teachers.

I know there are much bigger problems, especially the student behavior ones, but it doesn’t seem to take a genius consultant to point out why the teacher turnaround is so high. What is the 53 million being spent on?

posted by: RichTherrn on August 27, 2013  7:33pm

Re why new teachers leave… comments can speculate, but I do know the reasons behind all of them.. some are due to not liking teaching at all, some due to pursuing other careers, family, locations, levels, etc.. No one answer fits them all, despite others’ anecdotes/experiences.
As I said, teaching science longterm in New Haven isn’t a match for everyone.

It is important to realize that the expectation of most teachers staying with their same job/school/district/career for more than 15 years, or even much past 5-7 years is a little out of touch.
The average time a new college BA graduate stays in ANY job is much less than 5 years, and that number is decreasing… people simply change jobs more often than they use to.
The state offers very good deals on mortgage assistance for teachers that teach in urban districts/shortage areas.. Homebuyers/Homebuyer Mortgage Programs/for Selected Professions/TeachersMortgageAssistanceProgram.aspx

but again, many don’t want to spend that money to buy homes/put down roots at all.
Especially because new teachers then are required to pay for a Masters Degree (~$30-40K) (and then administrators a second graduate degree), many cannot afford that type of long term commitment.
The goal is for students to have a good, meaningful, engaging science learning experience to help them prepare for their future.

posted by: NewHavenPublic on August 27, 2013  7:33pm

Is it true that New Haven Public Schools signed a contract with Teach For America whereby they pay TFA several thousand dollars per recruit?  Is it also true that this contract obligates New Haven Public Schools to hire a set number of TFA corps members each year?  (A link to the NHPS-TFA contract would answer these questions and serve the interest of transparency.)

posted by: poetbum on August 27, 2013  8:16pm

Melissa Bailey could have done a better job with this sentence:  “As part of the $53 million plan, New Haven will begin studying exactly which teachers are leaving city schools, and why.”  What does ‘part’ mean?  $0.01?  $100,000?  $52,999,000?  As written, it gives the impression that several tens of millions of dollars is being spent on a study which will probably only cost a few thousand.

posted by: True that on August 27, 2013  10:55pm

What immediately comes to mind is why there were not exit surveys and deep contemplation regarding this problem sooner.  Why in the world would it take 8 years to even look into this?  There is a common saying schools that teachers don’t leave schools, they leave their bosses.  Now, that would include administrators at the school level, as well as the supervisors and other Central Office personnel.  Perhaps Science teachers are leaving because New Haven has put so much emphasis upon increasing standardized test scores in the areas of reading and math, that they have failed to make a substantive investment in scientific inquiry, making teachers frustrated and disillusioned.  Although science is on the CMT and CAPT, they are only tested in the 5th and 8th grades in elementary school.  Now, I am no proponent of standardized testing, but I can assure you that if the test were given every year, and there was accountable for low scores, science would have gotten more resources and better leadership.  The supervisor has to take responsibility for not developing a program of study and teacher supports that would prevent this from being so wide-spread.

posted by: Tom Burns on August 28, 2013  12:52am

Teachers won’t leave when they believe they have a voice, when they can teach according to their beliefs, and when they get supported in their efforts—when they can make the decisions of what goes on in their classrooms and when they get the compensation they deserve for being the stewards and guardians of our children while we attend to our own occupations and lives—-and a little positive reinforcement from society would go a long way—but we are not holding our breath—If you can read this, thank a teacher—Tom

posted by: Concerned Teacher on August 28, 2013  6:56am

NewHavenTeacher—yes it is true the.  At the budget released at the Aug 5th Board of Education Meeting, the TFA-line item indicated that the district pays $3,000 per TFA teacher.  The district also sets a maximum number of TFA teachers they will take.  In the budget this year, it indicated that district commits to a maximum of 18 teachers at the $3,000 additional fee—which is $54,000.

I am unclear as to whether it’s a $3,000 flat fee that covers the two years, or if it’s repeated in year 2.  I’d also be interested in knowing if we get any part of that fee back when those teachers leave mid-year.  I believe in the past the fee was $2,500, but it has increased.

posted by: Melissa Bailey on August 29, 2013  12:12am

@poetbum—Studying the reasons teachers leave the district is one goal set forth by the $53 million Teacher Incentive Fund effort. As far as I know, no money so far has been allocated for that purpose.

posted by: Melissa Bailey on August 29, 2013  10:51am


In its contract with TFA, NHPS agrees to pay $3,000 per teacher hired, for up to 18 teachers. (There’s no mandatory minimum.) That’s $3,000 for each first-year TFA teacher and also $3,000 for each second-year TFA teacher.

Here’s a copy of the TFA contract. Starts on Page 52.

And a past story I did about the contract:

posted by: Educator on August 30, 2013  4:00pm

It may be true that science teachers are leaving the system; however, there are science teachers in the system who were given other assignments and not placed in science when the 7th and 8th grades were eliminated in several New Haven K-8 Schools. It would appear that these experienced, dedicated teachers would have been given first preference in filling vacancies instead of being told that there were none available.

posted by: RichTherrn on August 31, 2013  6:28am

@Educator, the situation wasn’t as you described it, but since it involves a specific teacher it would be inappropriate for me to make public comment… people can contact me.

posted by: NewHavenPublic on August 31, 2013  10:12am

@Melissa Bailey Thank you for the TFA contract and the link to your earlier story.

I’m furious that NHPS is paying $54,000 this year for these 18 temporary hires, PLUS the $3,000 per TFA corps members in the second and likely last year of their employment.  Creative executives would use $100,000 to develop a more sustainable model to attracting and retaining talent.  At the very least, this money could hire two teachers who were planning a career in education.

Or, is Teach for America here in support of the “disruptive change” strategy of “school reform”?

Finally, while the contract does not seem to specify that New Haven is required to hire 18 TFA teachers, page 54 the contract reads “…School district will offer alternative employment to any teacher who is not employed by the first day of the academic school year.  “Alternative employment” includes, but is not limited to substitute teaching positions, “pool” teaching positions, classroom aides or other temporary category of employment available within School to individuals with teaching credentials.”

Can someone provide an example of this situation?  Is this purposefully confusing language?