More Tennessee teachers are heading for the exits. Since 2008 the number is up by more than a thousand – nearly doubling – to a total last year of almost 2,200. Exactly why is a bit of a mystery. Some teachers see it as a response to a couple years of politically charged upheaval in state education policy. But state officials say it’s not so clear-cut, and even go so far as to argue higher turnover has an upside.
Judy Beasley recently went through a tough period wondering if she should retire, after four decades teaching math in Metro. Like thousands of other veteran teachers in Tennessee, Beasley had chosen not to take retirement right away.
But having spent 30 years at West End Middle, where she was Teacher of the Year in 2005, she found herself not long ago at the bottom of a new 1-to-5 scale, with a rating of 1. The state had just launched a system that ties teacher evaluations to student test results, and Beasley had to ask herself whether she wanted to continue.
“When you’re told that you’re a dreadful teacher, which is what a 1 indicates, and that you’re doing a horrible job, which is what a 1 indicates, why would you want to stay in that job?”
Hard to pin down a specific cause
State education researcher Nate Schwartz agrees many teachers getting bad scores may see it as their cue to leave, in what he calls “self-selection.” He says this isn’t driven by explicit state policy. And because so much has changed in the state over the last few years, Schwartz says it’s hard to pin down a specific cause for the retirement spike.
Besides the new evaluations, many teachers were outraged when lawmakers tossed out their collective-bargaining rights in 2011, as well as the old tenure system. But the uptick in retirements might have less to do with shifting policy, says Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, and more to do with the economy.
Huffman notes people retired less “across all professions” amid the recession in 2008, “because their retirement accounts had been hit so badly.” So if a lot of teachers already put off retiring a few years, Huffman says it’s no surprise to see more leaving now.
The point Huffman wants to emphasize is that teachers ranked at the bottom are retiring faster:
“Two years ago our best teachers and our lowest performing teachers retired at the same rate. And after last year, those rates completely diverge, so that our lowest performing teachers were retiring at twice the rate of our best-performing teachers.”
That trend points toward improving schools, Huffman says.
But it’s worth comparing more than just rates. In terms of real people, last year more top teachers retired – 129 of them, compared to 96 from the bottom. So even though 5s retired at a lower rate, there were still far more of them gone. State officials argue the rate is a more telling comparison, since in 2012 there were 6,704 teachers with 5s on the 1-to-5 scale, while 1s totaled just 2,644.
When asked why there are now so many more teachers with top ratings, a state official said students have scored well compared to the baseline set in 2009, but it’s not clear if this was caused by any particular policy or set of policies.
It’s also worth noting the state’s data is based solely on test results, not classroom observations, where some have voiced concern about inflated or uneven ratings.
Sense of belonging
As for Judy Beasley, she decided not to hang it up. The bad scores she got in 2010 have since improved dramatically. With younger teachers in mind, for whom retirement is not an option, Beasley says she feels she belongs in the classroom.
“And when I see all the changes, I feel like I need to be there, to mentor the new teachers that are having so much trouble with all of this, that are taking it so much to heart.”