Veteran New Orleans teachers say there is much that has improved in the city’s schools since Hurricane Katrina, including academics and strong school cultures. One thing that has decidedly not improved is job satisfaction among the city’s most experienced teachers, according to a new study by the Educational Research Alliance at Tulane University.
ERA’s analysis provides an important before-and-after-the-storm glimpse of the city’s schools from a unique perspective—the small group of pre-Katrina teachers who returned to teaching following the storm, and who have remained in the classroom for over a decade. As New Orleans looks forward, the views of these returning pre-Katrina teachers are key; they are the survivors.
In the wake of the mass firings following the storm, the teachers who returned to New Orleans and were still teaching at the time of the study, in the 2013/2014 school year, almost surely represent the city’s most experienced educators—and those with the closest community ties. While teachers with greater than 20 years of experience made up nearly 40 percent of the teaching force before the storm, that number has dropped to about 15 percent, according to another ERA study. Conversely, the number of inexperienced teachers with less than 5 years experience now make up the majority of teachers, up from about 30 percent before the storm.
As of the 2013/2014 school year, 771 teachers had returned to teaching jobs in the city, or just under 24 percent of the city’s total 3,219 teachers. Of these 42 percent participated in the ERA survey.
The study shows some striking differences in how these veteran teachers view the schools before and after the storm. Among the biggest differences are these:
–61 percent of teachers said that their job satisfaction was “less now” than before Hurricane Katrina, compared with 39 percent who said it was greater after the storm.
–54 percent said they spent longer hours working now, compared with 10 percent who said they spent “less” time working. (The remainder said there was no change.)
–38 percent found students’ home environments are “more” challenging now, compared with 17 percent who said home environments were “less” challenging. (The remainder said there was no change.)
ERA also notes some “positive” results:
–a significant majority of teachers said schools were “more” likely to use data and to fire poorly performing teachers.
–a majority—40 percent and 36 percent, respectively–cited “more” strong school culture and support for teachers, compared to 19 percent and 21 percent who said school culture and support for teachers had declined since the reforms. (The remainder said there was no change.)
Yet, it is the decreased teacher morale among these veterans that is most worrisome. Earlier studies show that teacher turnover has soared in New Orleans–at least partly the result of novice teachers who have come to New Orleans since the storm, but quit after just a few years. Teachers who left the profession went from about 8 percent in 2003 to about 18 percent in 2013.
Also, while student outcomes are positively correlated with having teachers from comparable racial and ethnic backgrounds, a combination of Louisiana policies and charter-school reforms have led to a “dramatic shift in the teacher workforce,” according to the Hechinger Report. The number of African-American teachers in New Orleans dropped precipitously following Hurricane Katrina from 71 percent of the teaching force to 49 percent for a student body that is now 87-percent African-American. (See also, Andre Perry on the importance of black teachers)
Behind the numbers is a sharp drop in the pipeline for local teachers, the result of both state cuts to higher education that have gutted local education programs and charter-school preference for hiring teachers from alternative education programs, such as TFA.
The new ERA study also adds to a growing body of research that points in two contradictory directions: On the one hand, studies show low-experience levels, high turnover and weak teacher morale in New Orleans. On the other hand, some researchers have pointed to a positive correlation between the reforms, including charter schools, competition and a sharper focus on accountability, and increased test scores. “How is it possible to see large improvement in student outcomes when all the typical measures of teacher quality seem to be going in the wrong direction?” ERA asked in an earlier study.
One answer is that some New Orleans research is unreliable and some is over-hyped. The much touted CREDO study of 2015 violated its own methodology in its research on New Orleans. Meanwhile, ERA’s 2015 study, “What Effect Did the Post-Katrina School Reforms Have on Student Outcomes?”, found that the reforms had resulted in increased test scores in grades 3 to 8; however the study said virtually nothing about test scores in high school. Doug Harris, director of ERA wrote in a recent email: “We don’t have high school test results, in part because the testing regime changed multiple times in multiple ways, which makes the analysis much more complex. We haven’t tried the analysis with the high school scores because we haven’t found a way we found believable.”
That hasn’t stopped education reformers from pouncing on the somewhat limited results of the ERA study and declaring victory.
Indeed, important characteristics of New Orleans reforms, including a high-rate of school closings and at-risk students cycling through multiple schools, are more likely to adversely impact high school students who, unlike their younger peers, are more likely to resist no-excuses culture of the non-selective New Orleans charters, and eventually to drop out. New Orleans also has done a terrible job of keeping track of kids who “fall between the cracks.”
Education reformers like to say that “teachers are the single most important” school variable in a child’s education. As with so much else in the ed-reform debates, this is misleading. For surely, school stability and culture, which is controlled by school leaders—in the best cases, by cadres of teacher leaders—is as important as the role of individual teachers. School culture also helps determine just how much influence teachers have over curriculum, discipline and other policies. In my research, both quality education and teacher job satisfaction are highly correlated with schools that include teachers in such key decisions.
In New Orleans, with a teacher cadre plagued by high turnover and sparse classroom experience, veteran teachers should be treasured. That so many say they have less job satisfaction than during the pre-Katrina years, suggests that they are not, which is surely a failing with implications far beyond just teacher morale.