School Quality Depends on Teacher Quality
Some people believe that day schools could thrive if we pursue donors and parents aggressively and/or hire the right leaders. Yet decades of research in general education suggest that teachers are the single most important school-related factor affecting student learning outcomes—more than principals or anything else within the boundaries of a school. In other words, these findings suggest that the quality of a school is to a large extent correlated and dependent on the quality of its teachers.
Knowing that high quality teaching is crucial does not mean researchers have a clear understanding of what exactly constitutes teacher quality. There is a consensus that teachers need to know their subject matter well and be able to teach it effectively to diverse groups of learners. But there are other important variables that contribute to teacher effectiveness. When teachers are carefully recruited and prepared for teaching in particular school contexts, and when they are offered meaningful mentorship and professional development opportunities, as well as administration support at their schools, they are more likely to become satisfied and effective, and as a result stay longer in the profession.
When those components are lacking, teachers are more likely to leave early on, forcing a vicious cycle of recruitment and spending to bring in new and often inexperienced teachers, just to see them leave school a few years after their arrival. Besides the rising cost involved with recruitment and induction of new teachers, teacher attrition impedes the development of a cohesive professional culture and is harmful for student learning. While this phenomenon is often seen as related to urban public schools, studies suggest that many day schools have also failed to create the conditions of support that would enable their teachers to stay for the long term.
In a recent study based on a comprehensive survey of 639 teachers from Jewish day schools across the US and Canada, I examined who are the teachers that currently teach in day schools. I wanted to understand if and to what extent teachers are supported and satisfied, and to what extent are they committed to teaching their students and serving the Jewish community. Together with my collaborator Sally Lesik, I considered a broad array of school conditions, as well as teachers’ motivations and commitments that could help explain what causes teachers to stay in or leave day school teaching.
The study identified two profiles (types) of Jewish day school teachers and compared them across two teacher populations: a general sample of Jewish day school teachers (taken from a JESNA study by Michael Ben-Avie and Jeffrey Kress) and a group of Jewish day school teachers who were prepared through the DeLeT (Day school Leadership through Teaching) program at Brandeis University and HUC-JIR. I included DeLeT teachers in the study because I wanted to explore whether going through a Jewish teacher preparation may be more or less correlated with teacher retention and particular commitments.
Describing the general sample of Jewish day school teachers, we identified two profiles of teachers: (a) very engaged teachers, and (b) disengaged and unsupported teachers. Analysis of these profiles reveals an issue that should concern the day school community. On the one hand, the very engaged teachers were highly committed to their students and the Jewish community and reported a strong intention to stay in Jewish education. This group was not correlated (either positively or negatively) with professional and administrative support, which means that these variables had neutral effect on the teachers’ intentions and desire to stay in teaching. On the other hand, the disengaged and unsupported teachers reported on debilitating school environment, a weak commitment to the Jewish community, and little interest in helping children to grow. The teachers related to this profile did not intend to stay in day school teaching or other Jewish education jobs.
Analyzing the population of teachers who graduated from the DeLeT program we identified two distinct profiles of teachers: (a) engaged and well supported teachers, and (b) engaged and unsupported teachers. The first group includes teachers who received support from their administration and peers at school and were enthusiastic about continuing to teach in day schools. The second profile of DeLeT teachers was somewhat more complex. It includes teachers whose prime motivation to stay in teaching was connected to their deep commitment to help the Jewish community thrive and their desire to teach children and see them learn and grow. Although the latter group of teachers reported receiving only minimal levels of administration support, their commitments to the Jewish community and to student growth probably reinforced their intention to stay in teaching.
These findings complement a growing body of literature in general and Jewish education suggesting that high-quality mentoring, professional development and administrative support are likely to improve teachers’ professional growth and retention and result in better teachers and student learning. Unfortunately, despite some important initiatives aimed at improving professional development in North American Jewish day schools, many schools cannot and do not offer teachers the types of support and development they need. While some teachers, strongly committed to the Jewish community and their students, will stay in the field even under adverse conditions, well designed and sustained professional learning can strengthen their commitment and quality of teaching.
Moreover, it is plausible to expect that under different circumstances and with more professional support, some teachers who were identified as disengaged and unsupported (and on their way out of the profession) could develop into satisfied effective teachers who would want to stay and contribute to their school and students. One way to approach this important issue is to track not only the teachers who stayed in Jewish day schools but also those who left the profession and compare them in terms of demographic background, personal commitments, teacher preparation experience and school conditions.
In 2007 I established a comprehensive survey system that tracks Jewish day school teachers who graduated from the DeLeT program at Brandeis and HUC-JIR to help the field understand which factors are most prominent in explaining teacher retention and attrition. When analyzing the findings I compared the DeLeT teachers who stayed with those who left and found clear indications that those who left were significantly more likely to have received lower levels of support from their administrators and peers at school. Naturally, this was not the only factor explaining teacher attrition. We also found that those who stayed had significantly stronger commitment to serve the Jewish community and greater perception of effective teacher preparation experience.
What can school leaders, those who fund Jewish education, and those who shape communal policy learn from these findings? The first lesson is obvious. Day schools should pay more attention to teachers, because investment in teacher quality is the most cost-effective approach to improving student learning and maintaining day schools as a viable option for upper and middle class Jewish families. In particular, it is imperative for day school leaders to consider whether the structure and schedule of teachers’ work serve their school, and whether redesigning it may help teachers become better at what they do. In order for that to happen schools might need to consider moving resources (not necessarily increasing them) and building frameworks and infrastructures that put the professional growth of teachers as a top priority for the school.
The second lesson, which is perhaps less obvious, is that training, supporting and developing the most effective teachers is a shared responsibility of the programs that prepare teachers and the schools that hire them. Schools and teacher preparation programs have a vested interest to interact and build closer partnerships, which could help create a more sensitive recruitment system that attracts the best candidates in terms of Jewish background and commitment to the Jewish community, as well as preparing and supporting these candidates in learning to teach their subject matter successfully in particular day school settings.♦
Dr. Eran Tamir is a senior research associate at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education and Lecturer in Education at Brandeis University. firstname.lastname@example.org