Corporate Advice For Teacher Retention

TNTP started out life as The New Teacher Project, a Michelle Rhee cousin organization of Teach For America, aimed at providing a path to the classroom for people considering teaching as their second career. They've continued with that mission, with an emphasis on diversity, but along the way, they morphed into a purveyor of slick "reports" that policy makers could wave around as shiny proof of whatever reformster policy idea they were peddling. TNTP has had two big hits--the odious "Widget Effect" and the feebly-researched "Opportunity Myth," but they have also offered their advice regarding tenure, teacher pay, teacher evaluation, and professional development.

TNTP's site reflects a very corporate human resources approach to teaching (you will be unsurprised to learn that the closest its current leadership comes to teaching experience is a few Teach For America products). That corporate focus and style  shines through in a recent offering "Addressing Teacher Shortages: Practical Ideas for the Pandemic and Beyond."

Through my college years, I had a summer/winter job in the private sector, where I saw lots of management training pitches. One thing that often struck me was that the trainings were about 75% obvious and 25% just wrong. My co-workers and I would complain, "Who is this for? Some space alien who just arrived? Who could be so completely dumb that they needed to be told this?" Then would come the second wave of horror, in realizing that there were people who were dumb enough to need to be told this, and they would never be able to apply it in any sort of believable way, like the boss who artificially injects your first name, Kevin, into every sentence because he went to a seminar where they told him that was a good way to make the human capital in your office feel appreciated.

I thought about those days a lot as I read this guide.

The guide is broken into three sections, beginning with "Diagnosing Your Staffing Challenges." This is tied to three Goals For Your Talent Strategy, and not for the last time, I'm going to point out that teachers mostly don't want to work for people who talk like this unironically. I'll just flag some of the more egregious language as we go along.

The three goals are, first, to give students "access" to "diverse, highly effective educators who provide access to high-quality academic experience every day, in every class." Second, the staff should reflect the demographics of the students. And the school should retain strong and promising educators. Not a bad set of goals.

The guide offers a battery of questions to ask about recruitment, staffing and retention. Most of these are pretty obvious. Where do our applicants come from. When do we post openings. What's our screening process. How are teachers "staffed" to positions, and is it an efficient method. What's our yearly retention rate. Do particular leaders or schools have high turnover. There are plenty more, virtually all asking about things that administration should already know, and if any of these questions made them think, "Yeah, that would probably be a good thing to know," we're talking about that level of ineptitude that will make it hard for them to follow the advice. I mean, any administrator who is told to ask "Are we hiring the most effective candidates" and slaps their forehead, hollering, "Hey--that would be a great idea, wouldn't it!" has problems deeper than this guide will solve.

Language alert: Staffing and Instructional Delivery Models. Teachers do not deliver instructional units; they teach.

Short Term Strategies

Several ideas here, starting with a plan for vacancies.

Some interesting ideas here, like deciding which vacancies--both long term and day-to-day subbing, are your priorities. Won't work for the subbing, of course--even in my small town regions, it's the substitutes and not the districts that decide what classes the sub will cover. TNTP wants districts to have a policy that prioritizes "learning acceleration for historically marginalized students" which is a well-intentioned thought (even if "learning acceleration" is not actually a thing). Plus have a person in charge of handling overseeing vacancy policy implementation, which again-- if a district is too dumb to already do this, getting this advice won't help.

Also, make non-teaching personnel rotate into classroom absence coverage, an idea I totally support. Also, reach out to family and community members to volunteer to cover non-teaching stuff, or community or faith-based organizations. Not a bad idea, but fraught with a few issues (check all those many clearances). Then we pivot back to the painfully obvious-- strengthen your sub pool by paying more and giving them a shot a full-time jobs. 

The guide also offers some bad ideas here. Redesign your school day. Have a grade level Whatsapp. Have teachers keep a sub folder--okay, that's an obvious idea, not a bad one. And the ever-popular "expand the reach" of "your most effective teachers." More on that in a bit.

There 's a whole other section on "address your immediate vacancies" which falls into the "if you don't already do this, I don't know how to help you category." But it does include this

Language Alert: "Implement a robust cultivation strategy that includes a cadence for outreach" to possible candidates that includes "a strategic mix of high- and low-touch efforts." 

Next is "develop a differentiated retention strategy" which includes using a school climate survey. You should also "equip school leaders with evidence-based retention strategies" including "stay conversations." Also, recognize excellent instruction. Give top teachers leadership roles. And "help school leaders be more effective people managers," which, yes, sure-- I've had bosses who were terrible people managers, however all the training on God's green Earth wouldn't help them. Actually, you know what area is ripe for the Dunning-Krueger Effect? People management skills. See also "I don't know how to explain to you that you should care about other people."

Also, reduce the workload of non-teaching baloney, provide mental health services, and protect them from the fallout over current CRT-panic etc etc. All worthy goals.

The "expand the reach" idea gets its own subcategory. The people who aren't actually teachers but have lots of experiences managing meat widgets think these ideas are really great and have kept pushing them for years. They are still bad. 

Live stream and record lessons! Have we not just done widespread field testing of this idea and determined that 1) it vastly increases the work for the teacher and 2) generally doesn't work very well.

Or maybe just cram a whole lot of students into one teacher's class (maybe give the teacher a teaching assistant or aid or something). I've written before about this terrible idea. The short form is that, first, this really gets in the way of forming the relationships that are a critical factor in teaching. Can't feel that the teacher knows you and cares about you when you are just one more face in a huge crowd. Second, the workload would be huge. If I assign an essay, I need to read the essay to see how the students are doing. No, getting a score from my aid doesn't cut it, and no, the software that can assess an essay still isn't written. So, 600-700 essays to grade? No, giving me a huge workload does not make me feel like sticking around. Also, classroom management for a few hundred 7th graders? Yikes!

Next up-- develop and implement a data analytics strategy to project future vacancy needs.

I thought this would be some terrible data analytics foolishness, but no--they suggest you figure out your average retention , multiply it by the current number of teachers, add any positions you expect to add to the district (ha!), and that's the number of teachers you'll need to hire. They write this formula out for you in a graphic, just in case it's too esoteric for you. Oh, and ask your building admins what they think they'll need. I have no idea who they imagine their audience to be here, but I sure wouldn't want to work for the administration that actually found this page revelatory.

Finally, develop an early hiring strategy. They have actual research to show that the quality of the pool declines as the hiring season continues, which--you actually spent time and money to research that?? Along with a wordy version of "get off your ass and hire quickly and early," they also suggest just hiring teachers with an open "we haven't got an assignment for you yet" contract, which seems deeply dumb. You hired a chemistry teacher, but you have an English opening? You hired someone who really wants to work in primary grades, but you're going to stick her in a fifth grade classroom instead? You're going to promise to pay someone you may not even need? 

Long Term Strategies

I'm going to bring up the obvious problem here that the guide overlooks-- long term strategies are best pursued by people who have a long term commitment to the district. It is hard to get a good ten year plan out of an administrator whose ten year plan is to be long gone by the time a decade clicks off. Administrators, like Teach for America products who are just doing a quick two-year resume building exercise, mostly aren't around for a long term commitment. It's only actual teachers who do that.

The guide has three long-term planning ideas, and let's start right out with

Language alert: Improve and enhance your overall employee value proposition. Or, as we say on this planet, make it a good job that people want to stay with.

To their credit, they seemed to have examined the work of Dan Pink that I have link4ed to a zillion times, as they recommend looking at how well the job addresses mission, mastery, autonomy, and growth, as well as pay and a decent working environment. But then they just keep using the acronym EVP and it's hard to take them seriously when they're throwing around this corporate argle bargle. And to find out how your work environment is doing-- collect data and stakeholder focus groups. 

Reduce barriers to entry for teachers. Well, that's TNTP's whole shtick, so I would expect this to come up. Make it easier to get a license to teach, they say. There are a lot of details to bedevil here, though I'm inclined to start pushing back when they bring up "hybrid bachelor's degrees." They'd also like to lean less on test scores(praxis, I guess) which is a fine idea, but instead lean on--well, "states should set clear expectations for what great teaching looks like" and boy there's no way that could end badly, and then use observation and "evidence of student learning" (aka test scores, so I guess those are okay) to decide. That's a lot to load on a teaching newbie.

Develop and expand teacher pathways, which is more of the same. Can you set up an alternate certification program?  Can you find a way to certify uncertified staff--even those without a bachelor's degree? Can you find a way to do it really quickly? And so on--there are, again, two layers of questions here. First, are these ideas any good (some are, some aren't) and second, what competent district leaders aren't aware of them?

Finally, reimagine the teacher role. Can't find "teachers"? Then just change what the word "teachers" means.

Language alert: Systems should examine each aspect of their vision for student experience and identify the necessary talent supports. Swap out the word "student" and we are once again treated to language that would be applicable in any corporate setting, complete with corporate jargon, the kind of language that obscures meaning rather than illuminating it.

So how to change the teacher role? Well, for one, there's the McDonaldization of teaching--break the work down into different pieces and hire (cheaper) workers to do the different pieces. Hide what you're doing by calling it "support" for teachers. And get some technology in there. "Current technology and workforce innovations can--and should--plan to use fewer staff members more efficiently." For example, they suggest the "lead" math teacher could create all the lesson materials and "a small team of novice or student teachers primarily deliver lessons." Or a lead teacher could be responsible for all of one elementary grade, while the novice/student teachers teach lessons and reinforce key concepts. Because education is, you know, just a product to be "delivered,"  and not an interaction between actual carbon-based life forms for whom relationship is an important part of the process.

They're loaded with ideas. Maybe teachers could serve multiple campuses. A team model for "efficiently reallocating the traditional responsibilities of classroom teachers across a cadre of professionals" that would include "community educators, paraeducators, certified and student educators." This would "leverage each group's expertise and skills." I can't make the numbers for this work in my head. On the one hand we currently have way many mid-career teachers, but on the other hand, this would require a huge number of novices and student teachers- a real challenge given how the pipeline has dried up.

The guide likes all this because they believe it gives teachers a chance to climb the ladder of success (a thing that business types love and imagine everyone must also desire) except that whenever someone wants to let teachers do more climbing the ladder, they do it by digging a big hole and putting the bottom of the ladder there--in other words, teachers get to start lower, not climb higher.

TNTP also addresses a new model for compensation, and that doesn't add up, either. Starting teachers should get a "competitive salary commensurate with the demands of their role," which is a real stack of weasel words, particularly when you consider that in their team model, novice teachers have far fewer responsibilities than they do now. Meanwhile, teachers should get more pay as they demonstrate "a positive influence on student learning" (which sounds like "test scores" again), but if I'm just designing lessons and various other team members are "delivering" them, exactly who gets credit for the positive influence? 

Much of this "reimagination" of the profession is what TNTP and other corporate reformsters have always argued for, and it's hard not to see in this guide a subtext of "Look, we always told you to get rid of a bunch of teachers and redesign the profession along technocorporate lines. Now that you are losing teachers anyway, we think you really ought to listen to us." 

As always with a TNTP "report," I'm not really sure who the audience is, though it usually turns out to be policymakers who want a slick professional looking report to wave around as they advocate for imposing some shiny reformy idea on education. Every time I hope that it won't happen again, but so far my value proposition for deliverable units of human capital positive uplift outlook have been smooshed.