Sunday, March 04, 2007

Discussion of teacher burnout at high-performing schools

Many people look at the success of KIPP and similar schools, see the long hours, and wonder if it's replicable and sustainable, in light of potential teacher burnout.  My response: the 16-hour-day is a bit of myth.  Indeed, KIPP teachers are on call 24/7 and work long hours, but no longer than consultants, investment bankers and lawyers (all of whom, unlike teachers, have to do a great deal of travel in addition to long hours), not to mention doctors and many other professions -- and I don't hear people saying investment banking isn't sustainable because of the long hours.
In response to my comments, a friend wrote: 
The article suggests that only the most heroic efforts produce great results with low-income minority kids, specifically "teachers who work 15 to 16 hours a day".  This is not something that you can build a huge system on.  Fortunately, there is ample evidence that it is not a requirement for success.  Achievement First has worked hard to make teaching a more normal and "livable" career, even in our middle schools that are charged with moving its students through 6 or 8 years of material in 4 years.  It's hard work and requires dedication and efficient organization, but it's manageable.  And, as we bring more kids through our own K-4 program, we will see the virtual elimination of time and effort devoted to academic remediation and behavioral issues.
Another added:
I struggle with this all the time. You compare teaching to I banking, consulting and law in terms of commitment/hours. Fair enough. But when was the last time you saw a 5th year teacher take home a quarter of a million dollar bonus (or more)? Let's face it, that makes it sustainable.
I have this discussion with people all the time. Talented people (for the most part) want to enjoy a high standard of living (one that the teaching profession can not provide -- not in NYC anyway). I guarantee you that if the pay scales of the fields you reference were inverted, you would not have a shortage of talent in the teaching world, but you might have one in investment banking.
I love TFA. They get it. We had a chance to meet 4 TFA teachers last week (working all over NYC) and they are amazing. If they can continue to scale up, I will support them all week long and twice on Saturday. But many of their corps will leave the field of education, and almost all will leave the classroom after their two years (primarily due to financial reasons I would say).
And another added:
a key difference with investment bankers, lawyers etc.. is that we all have maids, nannies, etc… etc…so that we can devote nearly all of our waking hours to working.  It’s tough if you don’t have that and still have to work long hours.
Finally, another friend (from KIPP) replied:
KIPP Houston has a really inexpensive (maybe $100 a week) day care service for its employees.  Not as good as a nanny, perhaps, but teachers can go over and see their kids during the day, which is better than a lawyer can do. 
And then elaborated (I LOVE this line! "The real problem is that there are not enough badasses going into teaching"):

I think that anyone hoping to create widespread reform by developing a program that will allow teachers to go home at, say, 4:00pm on a regular basis, they’re barking up the wrong tree.  The problem right now is NOT that there are a bunch of great teachers who would work at or start more high-performing schools except those great teachers want to work only until 4:00 or 5:00, and thus don’t think they can work for KIPP.  Certainly there are some such people, and certain schools can draw them out and make them more effective, but THAT’S NOT GOING TO CREATE WHOLE-SYSTEM REFORM EITHER, because there aren’t enough good/great teachers who want to go home at 4:00 to staff all of the schools in NYC or any other big city.  There are enough to staff a few more KIPP, AF, and Uncommon Schools schools, but that doesn’t solve the system-wide problem.

The real problem is that there are not enough badasses going into teaching.  Most of the really smart people in this country go into law, medicine, or finance.  What we desperately need is for teaching to be professionalized.  It’s probably unrealistic to think that it’ll ever be a really high-paying profession, but if you up the pay a little and more importantly add things like merit-based advancement and merit-differentiated pay scales, have good (or at least non-capricious) leadership in the schools, and get rid of such things as tenure and seniority, you’ll get people who want to work hard early in their careers (like lawyers and doctors and I-bankers do) because they know that if they do well, it’ll pay off in increased power, position, recognition, and salary.  Telling people “Come to teaching where you can be effective and leave the building at 4:00” might increase the pool of good people a bit, but could also have the opposite effect, as it still sells teaching as a second-rate job.  Can you imagine a new investment bank starting up and saying that with any hope of being regarded as a credible competitor? 

Schools like KIPP tell their people that they’re going to come work like crazy (especially at first) and in the process experience a lot of success and if they’re good enough they can be a principal at the age of 25.  And they won’t have to work with people who suck.  That’s why we keep rock stars in the profession who would have otherwise long ago left for “real” professions.  (What other school has as many Ivy Leaguers working there as KIPP does?)

This trend – which I see more and more – of telling people that you can teach in a good school without working too awfully hard is a dangerous one.  Managing Directors at Goldman Sachs and partners at Skadden work hard, but not as hard as when they were Analysts and Associates.  Similarly, our schools require a lot of up-front sweat equity, but over time the time commitment diminishes.  As the curricula are pretty much written and lesson plans need to be tweaked-but-not-re-written each year, the school becomes more efficient, like any start-up does.  And each subsequent start-up gets easier.

Some people think that KIPP is less replicable than other school models because it has fewer controls and teachers have to work such long hours.  I have found, however, that KIPP has no problem attracting and retaining top teachers because what high achievers want is not free time, but freedom and opportunity to be high achieving. 

In any case, the sad reality is there aren’t enough good teachers right now to staff a really broad expansion of ANY of these top schools anyway.  So we can either attack this human resources issue on the front end, by changing the image of teaching to one more in line with those of I-banking or law, or we can continue to participate in the perpetuation of the image of teaching as a second-rate job (not profession) whose members not only get three months of vacation, but also don’t have the energy to work more than eight hours a day. 

This more controlled/centralized/top-down approach also has implications for what it says about how we view teachers (we don’t trust you to develop your own curricula and lesson plans even though you want to), and innovation (limited ability to innovate at the school/classroom level). 

Let's not let minor differences in approach obscure the most important truths, however.  The other top charter school organizations all do great things for kids, and all have their hearts in exactly the right place – a more legitimate group of people I’ve never met.  What we really need is all these different organizations to just keep doing what they’re doing, expanding and opening as many good or great schools as they possibly can without sacrificing quality.  I’m just worried about the proliferation of the mindset reflected by the go-home-early sentiment. 

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