By Scott Meeker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
As the Joplin School District gears up for a new school year, students will see fewer familiar faces at the front of the classroom.
The number of resignations in the district rose from 57 in 2012 to 76 in 2013. The number of staff members choosing to retire rose from 16 to 30 within the same time period, creating an overall turnover rate that rose from 10.1 percent to 14.5 percent among the district’s more than 700 certified staff.
The turnover rate has nearly doubled within the district since 2009, when it was 7.6 percent.
District officials, former teachers and a state teacher representative say there are a variety of factors at work in that shift.
They ranged from taking a better paying job in another district to wanting to spend more time with family. Some teachers expressed frustration with the increased focus on student performance while claiming they were not getting the support needed to meet those goals, and with an emphasis on technology in the classroom that limits personal interaction with students.
Sara Robertson, a press representative for the National Education Association, said that despite the increase in turnover, the Joplin district is still “doing well” when it is compared with the most recent national figures.
The NEA, she said, bases its data on the Schools and Staffing Survey compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics every four years. The most recent survey was released in 2008, she said. New data from the survey is expected to be released later this month.
The last survey showed a national turnover rate of 46 percent. The number represents teachers who left the school they were teaching in, though not necessarily the teaching profession. The attrition rate — teachers who left the profession entirely — was 30 percent.
State turnover numbers paint a similar picture.
The most recent data available from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education showed nearly 30 percent of teachers leaving the work force after one to five years between 1996 and 2007. In 2009, 17.8 percent of first-year teachers left the classroom.
While those numbers may be the norm, the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future concluded they point to a serious problem.
“The rate of teacher turnover and churn is consistently high, it undermines teaching quality, it is costly, and it drains precious resources from schools,” a representative of the commission stated in response to Globe questions about the national statistics.
Jeff Stacy, the Southwest Field Coordinator for the Missouri State Teachers Association, said that he did observe a higher number of teachers from the Joplin district calling in over the past year with questions or seeking assistance. Questions directed to members of the Joplin Teachers Association were directed back to Stacy.
“Typically, there will be three or four school districts that have a higher than average call-in rate each year,” he said. “Once those issues are resolved, it’s another three or four districts the next year. It’s hard to predict. But I will say it seemed there were more calls than usual from Joplin.”
When contacted, the MSTA works with teachers to try to resolve problems they might be having and gives them options to consider, based on the nature of the problem, state statutes and district policies. Stacy said that because of confidentiality concerns, he couldn’t discuss specific issues raised with him by Joplin teachers.
“But I do know that the tornado has added stress for everyone in the Joplin area, and any time there’s a high-stress situation, the amount of concerns usually goes up.”
Performance standards in the Joplin district are another source of frustration for teachers, Stacy said.
“There are high expectations from the Joplin administration for test scores and performance,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure.”
That’s not likely to change.
Common Core State Standards, for example, are a set of academic expectations designed to ensure that students are college- and career-ready upon graduation from high school. The standards outline the knowledge and skills each student should possess at the end of each grade. They focus primarily on English/language arts and math but also call for literacy in other subjects, such as social studies, history, science and technical subjects.
The standards have been adopted by 45 states, plus the District of Columbia and four territories. State boards of education in Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma adopted them in 2010, and districts are preparing for their full implementation.
Missouri school districts are also guided by MSIP 5, a set of performance standards for districts to be eligible for accreditation by the state education department. The standards measure student academic achievement through standardized test scores, as well as scores on college entrance exams. They also evaluate districts on factors such as attendance and graduation rates.
One former Joplin teacher, who left the district to pursue another opportunity, said a major issue leading to the departure was having to meet those standards while teaching in multiple buildings with no set classroom.
“With accountability and standards increasing, it is very difficult to teach a curriculum out of a computer bag,” the teacher said in response to questions from The Globe. “I knew it was time to move on.”
Stacy said another factor at work in the turnover rate both in Joplin and throughout Missouri was legislation signed in July by Gov. Jay Nixon that made changes to the retirement provisions for teachers. The changes removed an incentive that would have rewarded teachers for staying with the district for additional years. Many longtime teachers throughout the state chose to take retirement before it took effect, Stacy said.
‘A hard transition’
C.J. Huff, superintendent of Joplin schools, admits that things have changed dramatically within the district in the two years since the May 22, 2011, tornado damaged or destroyed many district buildings, including the high school.
“There has been a tremendous amount of work that’s happened over the last two years that wouldn’t have happened in the same time frame,” he said. “It’s a reinvention of what schools can and should look like.”
He said Joplin teachers have left their jobs for a variety of reasons, including the economic downturn.
“The economy really hurt us to a degree,” he said. “We saw people losing jobs here locally. Spouses sometimes had a job that paid more and had to do a job search and then move. But there were also teachers who wanted to try something different.”
He also noted that despite the rise in Joplin’s turnover rate, the number is still below the state and national averages.
Regarding issues raised by teachers who have resigned, Huff said the new classroom reality isn’t always a good fit for every teacher.
“We work really hard to retain our staff, and retention is a big part of our strategic plan,” he said. “But we also have an obligation to our families and children to measure and monitor progress toward meeting our expectations. When we hire teachers in Joplin, they have two years, three tops, to demonstrate they have the skills, attitude and belief system that matches ours to get the job done.
“If they’re not able to do that, there is an evaluation system. If they feel the need to leave or find another district that is a better fit for them, that’s OK. I have no problem with that.”
He said recruitment efforts within the district are focused on tapping teachers who have the skills to adapt to a new teaching environment and providing professional development for current teachers. And while that may mean having teachers out of the classroom more than in the past, he believes it is a necessity.
“One of the things that has changed over the years is students being taught in isolation,” Huff said. “Now we have teachers observing other teachers to look at strategies, principals doing walk-throughs and more community members and volunteers in our schools than ever before.
“All of these things culminate to a model of education where (teaching) is out in the open. That’s a hard transition, and it’s not a good fit for some people. These changes have happened because our world is demanding it. We have to find good teachers who are comfortable working in that kind of culture.”
‘Good and bad’
Mary Gaarder, who retired as a teacher for Joplin’s gifted program in 2011, witnessed firsthand many of the changes and challenges now facing those working in the district.
“I think the biggest change, of course, has been the introduction of lots of technology,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful, but it does demand a lot of a teacher. It does push you. You can’t just keep doing what you’ve done.”
The pressure put on teachers for student performance on standardized tests, she said, is “sort of a wash.”
Gaarder said that on the upside, a poor teacher has to do the same things over and over, year after year. But good teachers, in her opinion, are open to changing their approach to teaching their students.
The focus on testing can be “much more of a straitjacket” for good teachers, she said.
“There’s good and bad to the accountability movement,” said Gaarder.
As part of that movement, she said, there would be days when members of an observation committee would enter the classroom several times, watch the teaching process and then issue a score.
“It can be intimidating, especially for people who have taught a long time,” she said.
Webb City Superintendent Anthony Rossetti said his school district also has seen “a slight increase” in teacher turnover in the past few years.
“The (teacher) retention rate in the state of Missouri hasn’t been good for the past five years, but ours is higher than that,” he said.
He also said the district has begun collecting data to help bring the retention rate up even higher.
“We make a big investment in our staff in the first five years and even after that,” Rossetti said. “We’ve initiated exit interviews to see if we can determine categories of why people are choosing to leave education, so maybe we can address issues and concerns before (teachers) decide to go somewhere else.
“If someone is not happy with the environment, the workload or they don’t feel prepared, we hope that will come out and we can put plans in place to address some of those things.”
Blaine Henningsen, superintendent of the Carthage School District, said turnover levels have had “a steady run” in the past several years.
“We’ve had the normal turnover, such as moving out of the community or family choices,” he said. “But we have retained first-year teachers at a higher rate than in the last six or eight years. We’ve also added 12 or 13 positions due to growth.
“We did have about 25 teachers retire last year because of the incentive that was there, but we had anticipated that happening.”