Is a soaring turnover rate for county teachers all about dollars and cents?
On Aug. 20, just four days before the start of the new school year in Frederick County Public Schools, a blockbuster news story hit televisions throughout the region with an alarming statistic: Since 2012, more than 300 teachers have left the county school system, according to public records obtained by WRC-TV.
Where have they been going? Mostly to nearby jurisdictions to make more money.
The report came as a shock to many unfamiliar with the school system, and even many of those with children in county schools. But Helen Pearcy wasn’t surprised. For the past 16 years she had been employed as a speech pathologist in the county—a position she called a “joy”—but felt she had no choice but to leave this year for a “significant pay raise” in Howard County, spending up to two hours a day commuting to her new job. “I don’t think I have met anyone who really wants to leave Frederick County,” Pearcy says.
And turnover comes with a price tag. The cost to cover teacher recruitment and hiring, administrative processing, training for new teachers, transfer costs, and associated turnover activities can quickly run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a school system the size of Frederick County’s and also negatively affect student achievement in profound ways, according to a 2009 study by the Alliance for Excellent Education. “The other, and far more important cost, is to students, particularly those in the hardest-to-staff schools serving students in poverty,” says Mariana Haynes, author of the study.
“In the medical field, the most experienced doctors get the most difficult cases, which only makes sense,” Haynes adds. “But, in education, and for a variety of reasons, mostly to do with educational culture nationally, schools with the lowest incomes, the most students of color, get the newest teachers. As these teachers grow and mature, they leave for better pay and better environments, which means that the new crop of teachers hired in those schools then miss out on the mentoring and guidance that the veterans might have offered.”
The main culprit in teacher turnover is easy to pinpoint. “Pay is low, and we have teachers who can’t afford to live where they work. Teachers know what this says regarding societal attitudes towards them,” says Molly Mee, an associate professor in Towson University’s College of Education.
And in a profession known for less-than-excellent pay, Frederick County teacher salaries rank near the bottom of the state, according to the most recent data compiled by the Maryland State Board of Education. During the 2014-15 school year, starting teachers in the county made $41,259; only new teachers in bordering Carroll County, who earned $40, 400, made less in Maryland. By comparison, the starting salary in Montgomery County was $46,410, and the pay gap between Frederick County and its neighbor to the south widens even further as teachers gain more experience and professional training.
Pearcy says the issues with teaching pay are rooted in the recession of the last decade, when tight budgets put a clamp on salaries. She says teachers were told to sit tight and they would be rewarded when the economy recovered, but they never were. She also maintains the teachers have become victims of their own success, consistently finding a way to be successful, despite the budget restraints. “As a result, there is no reason for those in power to give us more money,” she says.
But the salary gap only addresses part of the issue when it comes to turnover. The Alliance for Excellent Education study also cited poor working conditions, inadequate support from administration and a lack of collaborative environment as reasons for turnover. County educators are attempting to examine how that mosaic of issues, along with other factors, is leading to the local turnover rate.
“It will be important to determine what is the root cause for that exodus,” says Gina Keefer, a senior human resources manager for Frederick County Public Schools. “FCPS has in place an initiative to determine what are the drivers that impact a teacher’s decision to resign from their position. Are they leaving FCPS, are they leaving the profession, and why?”
One clue might be in the inherent stresses of teaching, which many teachers simply accept as part of the job.
“The amount of work necessary cannot be done within school hours,” says Eileen Thuman, a 25-year veteran of Frederick County Public Schools and a third grade teacher at Centreville Elementary School. “Bringing work home evenings and weekends is normal. If you’re going to be a good teacher, you have to put in those hours and the pay doesn’t equal the workload.”
But instead of sympathy from the public, the response often takes another tone: Well, you get a two-month summer vacation.
“We only work ten months of the year, true,” says Thuman, “but we’re only paid for ten months. Teachers are working second jobs and taking mandated classes and grading papers and continuing their certification efforts … coaching and giving extra time to those students that need it; I don’t know a single teacher who can get it all done within school hours.”
Thuman’s husband, Jim, a tech education teacher at Walkersville High School, suggests retention might also have to do with disillusioned teachers who find a different educational world than the one for which they trained. “Teachers are teaching with one arm behind their back,” Jim Thuman says. “Most teachers get into the profession because they want to help students, but when they get in they find that it’s not about that.”
Haynes, author of the Alliance for Excellent Education study, is quick to point out that there is hope. “Absent strong leaders, improvement cannot happen,” she says. “But, most states have, or are developing stronger principal evaluations and standards to help principals improve their practices. Administrators have the same criticisms applied to them as do teachers. They are charged with enforcing standards and supporting teachers. The problem is we have fragmented governments in the states. The system is complex and huge disparities in both resources and human capital remain a reality. In order for teachers and students to be successful, there needs to be a major transformation where teachers need to be seen as professionals, and as highly qualified people in our society.”
The solutions are not simple; regular evaluations of teachers, meaningful professional development and the cultivation of effective mentoring and induction programs are the easy part. The less-tangible solutions require paradigm shifts in attitudes on the part of the public and the government. Alliance for Excellent Education President Bob Wise has said, “In Singapore, teachers are called ‘nation builders,’ [in] recognition of the role they play in preparing the leaders and workers who will sustain the country’s economic health and longevity.”
IN THE CLASSROOM
Karen Vetter, a new kindergarten teacher at Waverly Elementary School, graduated from Hood College with a degree in early childhood education this year. A product of county public schools, she entered the profession in her 30s. “I want to be able to give [my students] a positive start so they can learn to love learning. I want to support their families and help them in this journey,” she says.
“It’s a really great feeling to be able to teach in the same county I had so much success in,” she adds. “Born and raised in Frederick County, I have a lot of pride in the education I received here. I felt like I wanted to have the chance now that I have more experience. Seeing my own kids go through the system makes me want to be a part of that positive experience.”
To help prepare Vetter and other new teachers, Frederick County has mentor programs in place. “I have had a tremendous amount of support from administration, from mentors and teammates,” Vetter says. “I’m not sure where that drops off in some systems, but continuing to foster that supportive community… that’s most important.”
One second-year teacher in FCPS who asked that her name not be used for this article feels that, despite the challenges, the support she had in her first year enabled her to envision staying. “For the most part, the first-year teacher class we took was good at teaching us the things we need to know with our Student Learning Objectives and evaluation process. I also had a mentor teacher in the building and we met monthly… and that was helpful.”
Nonetheless, her challenges as a beginning teacher might lend a clue as to the bigger problem. “I was hired two weeks before the start of the year. Everything was a challenge. I didn’t know before getting hired what grade I’d be teaching. I knew the content, but each grade has a drastically different curriculum… so learning that quickly was hard.”
She echoes others’ views regarding the workload-versus-pay issue, and when asked if she thinks she’ll last, she replies, “I sure hope so. I love teaching. It’s the students that do it for me. I have always kept myself surrounded with the kids in my professional life. The goal for me is to help the kids. I’ll do whatever I can to make it work.”