By Claudia Wallis
The Leaky Bucket
There’s no magic formula for what makes a good teacher, but there is general agreement on some of the prerequisites. One is an unshakable belief in children’s capacity to learn. “Anyone without this has no business in the classroom,” says Margaret Gayle, an expert on gifted education at Duke University, who has trained thousands of teachers in North Carolina.
Another requirement, especially in the upper grades, is a deep knowledge of one’s subject. According to research on teacher efficacy by statistician William Sanders, the higher the grade, the more closely student achievement correlates to a teacher’s expertise in her field. Nationally, that’s a problem. Nearly 30% of middle- and high school classes in math, English, science and social studies are taught by teachers who didn’t major in a subject closely related to the one they are teaching, according to Richard Ingersoll, professor of education and society at the University of Pennsylvania. In the physical sciences, the figure is 68%. In high-achieving countries like Japan and South Korea, he says, “you have far less of this misassignment going on.”
Other essential skills require on-the-job practice. It takes at least two years to master the basics of classroom management and six to seven years to become a fully proficient teacher. Unfortunately, a large percentage of public-school teachers give up before they get there. Between a quarter and a third of new teachers quit within their first three years on the job, and as many as 50% leave poor, urban schools within five years. Hiring new teachers is “like filling a bucket with a huge hole in the bottom,” says Thomas Carroll, president of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, a Washington-based nonprofit.
Why do teachers bail? One of the biggest reasons is pay. U.S. public-school teachers earn an average annual salary of less than $48,000, and they start off at an average of about $32,000. That’s what Karie Gladis, 29, earned as a new teacher in Miami. She scrimped for 31â�„2 years and then left for a job in educational publishing. “It was stressful living from paycheck to paycheck,” she says. “If my car broke down or if I needed dental work, there was just no wiggle room.”
But money isn’t the only reason public-school teachers quit. Ben Van Dyk, 25, left a job teaching in a high-poverty Philadelphia school after just one year to take a position at a Catholic school where his earning prospects are lower but where he has more support from mentors, more control over how he teaches and fewer problems with student discipline. Novice teachers are much more likely to call it quits if they work in schools where they feel they have little input or support, says Ingersoll. And there’s evidence that the best and brightest are the first to leave. Teachers with degrees from highly selective college are more likely to leave than those from less prestigious schools. In poor districts, attrition rates are so high, says Carroll, that “we wind up taking anybody just to have an adult in the classroom.”
— With reporting by Rita Healy/Denver, Hilary Hylton/Houston and Kathie