Keep “The Irreplaceables” In Our Classrooms

August 13th, 2012

Category: News, Policy and Practice

This post was originally published on Town Square Delaware.

The New Teacher Project’s (TNTP) recently released report, “The Irreplaceables: Understanding the Real Retention Crisis in America’s Urban Schools,” has parallels (albeit not perfect) to fantasy football league “can’t cut” lists. I know the idea of an education report having similarities to an activity millions around the country partake in every Sunday sounds crazy – but hear me out.

As the NFL season nears, I, like many of you, are doing initial research for my fantasy football draft. This involves looking into players’ past performance and trying to game plan on what combination of players will give me the greatest chance of winning. Once draft night is over, I constantly make trades or pick players up off of waivers in order to shore up weaknesses at various positions, especially as injuries mount. The players that move during this time are typically hit or miss – you might find a diamond in the rough, but you’re mostly looking to eke out a point or two here and there to give you an edge.

However, as any fantasy football fan will tell you, a select few are never traded or put on waivers because they are simply irreplaceable. For me, last year, those two were Aaron Rodgers and Rob Gronkowski. In some fantasy leagues, these two would be included in “can’t cut” lists – a small set of players that because of exceptional performance are prohibited from being dropped from rosters. This idea, that some players’ contributions are so undeniable that policies are constructed to ensure they remain with a team, is an idea whose time has come in education.

TNTP’s report, which analyzed data in four large urban districts employing over 90,000 teachers and serving 1.4 million students, identifies the “irreplaceables” as the approximately top 20 percent of educators based on their impact on student learning. Not only do these educators help students learn an additional two to three months of reading and math compared to the average teacher, they actually produce five to six months of greater learning gains compared to low-performing teachers. While that information jives with past research, here’s what is new – most schools retain “irreplaceables” at unusually similar rates to low-performers, highlighting our indifference to retaining our most effective educators.

While it would be easy to point fingers and lay blame elsewhere, the report makes clear that everyone has a hand in exacerbating this reality, particularly school leadership. First, our policy and practice structure doesn’t incentivize smart retention. This includes our compensation systems that pay educators based on their years of experience and higher education credits, limited opportunities for “irreplaceables” to advance professionally and evaluation systems that do not differentiate performance so that we can make strategic decisions regarding educator retention. Second, weak school cultures that fail to hold staff to high expectations drive away “irreplaceables” at higher rates compared to those whose principals create an atmosphere of respect and trust. And last, principals make minimal effort to retain their best and recognize low-performing teachers at similar rates as their “irreplaceables”.

The consequences of this indifference are clear. School turnaround efforts are hampered as staff attrition limits principals’ ability to build a strong instructional culture that is sustained long-term – particularly when it is harder to staff these schools with “irreplaceables” at similar rates to average schools. More importantly, the profession is not given the respect its due if we fail to recognize and reward our best and, instead, treat all teachers the same. This is not new – a broad coalition of Delaware stakeholders advocated for this shift back in 2006 as part of Vision 2015 and, today, is still something we all agree needs to change. This is especially true when we account for the significant short and long- term effects educators have on the lives of children.

And while I would no doubt love to have our focus shift immediately, it’s clear that Delaware, through Race to the Top, has taken initial steps to solve the problem. Whether it’s offering reward and retention bonuses, surveying educators on their working conditions, beefing up our Delaware Talent Management program or asking districts to develop locally agreed upon career pathways, we are starting to have the difficult conversations necessary to make truly foundational improvements that improve this reality.

In the end, I can only imagine what our education system could look like if we had a “can’t cut” structure – one in which district administrators, principals, parents, students and other community stakeholders had not only the desire, but tools at their disposal, to do everything in their power to retain their best. Whether it is greater responsibility, financial rewards or more instructional autonomy, we need to pull out all the stops to keep these people in the classroom because, as any fantasy football participant will tell you, there are simply some that are too valuable to give up.

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Brett Turner



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