Thursday, December 20, 2012

Teacher retention

Education Week has a round table forum on teacher retention, with several teachers participating from urban districts plagued by high turnover rates. Despite the differences of opinions shared, the comments tend to coincide with basic principles of organizational theory. In general, organizations function best and people thrive when the hierarchies are rational. This means strong leadership, clear lines of authority, and decision-making vested at the lowest possible level. Finding this balance can be difficult and often depends on the feelings and intuitions of the people involved. Not every employer or leader in an organization will have the same intuitive sense about where decisions should be made. But in general, the superintendent should not make decisions the principal can rationally make. The principal should not make decisions the teacher can naturally make. And the teachers should not make decisions that the students can naturally make. While different people will set the dividing lines on decision-making differently, and this will impact how the organization functions and appears, the more consensus there is among the people involved, the better the system works, and, in the end, the more likely it is that teachers will remain on their jobs.

I'm not an educator but a psychologist, and I've seen this process work in many different systems. In my younger days, I did administrative work, as the director of a day treatment program and as the director of a mental health clinic, and then later as a consultant to people who were operating in those roles. In each case, the principles I just described applied.

This issue is also central to understanding homework problems. In my book, The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers, I include a chapter on the Systems Effects. It is important to look at homework, not just as a task that needs to be done (according to the teachers) or as questionable whether it needs to be assigned (according to leading homework critics), but as an aberration of the natural hierarchies, the teacher in charge of the class, the parent in charge of the home.

As I said, people will differ in their gut feelings about where authority should lie and, because of that, there will be parents for whom homework fits naturally with what they expect and other parents for whom homework is perceived as an unnecessary intrusion into family life. Unlike the school, or any other corporate organization, which develops its internal operating principles and understandings about how decisions are made, homework makes its way into the community at large. Parents are not true members of the educational team (even if they are sometimes told they are when the child study team gets involved), since the focus of their involvement is solely restricted to the child in their home and they have no involvement in any other team interactions that impact school in general.

Unless we take stock of these hierarchical realities, we are going to continue to have kids and families whose lives are made miserable by homework. Those kids will be at risk of doing what teachers do in dysfunctional systems, and that is to leave (after all, the article I referred to has to do with teacher retention). And what does it mean for kids to "leave?" It means they turn off to school, gravitate to dysfunctional peer groups, and have increased chances of engaging in risky behaviors involving sex, drugs, and illegal activities.


Dr. Kenneth Goldberg, is the author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Teachers, and Students, published by Wyndmoor Press.

 I recommend giving copies of the book to the teachers at your child's school. Discount purchases are available through Wyndmoor Press. Single copies can be purchased at Amazon.


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