PhD Candidate Using Chaos Theory to Measure Teacher Distress

Ashley Grant wants to better understand why there is such an exceptionally high turnover rate among new teachers. Various studies estimate that half the new teachers resign within the first five years. The numbers are even higher for those in poor urban communities. Grant, who taught for three years at Catholic elementary schools in northeast Philadelphia, was impressed by the dedication of her co-workers even though the work was demanding and, at times, exhausting..

“For the faculty I worked with, teaching was a calling to serve and to make life better for the children,” said Grant, a School of Education doctoral candidate. “We were very committed, worked hard, and it certainly wasn’t for the money.”

The schools were located in some of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods. They had large minority populations made up of African-American and Hispanic students, including a large immigrant population. Many students were only able to attend with the help of need-based scholarships. According to Grant, children came to school hungry and poorly equipped to learn, struggling to cope with issues from their home and community.

“There was not enough time in the day to plan with other teachers.  I, like many other teachers, ended up feeling kind of alone. Every day I felt like I was fighting an uphill battle just to stay ahead of the planning that needed to be done for the next day’s classes.”

Research shows that most of teachers’ work is independent and done in isolation. This is especially difficult for those new to the profession. “When schools are not performing well, we should try to understand what teachers are dealing with and support them.”

Grant refers to a speech in early February by the acting Secretary of Education, John King, who apologized to the nation’s teachers. King admitted teachers have been unfairly blamed for the challenges our nation faces. The PhD candidate says her own decision to leave the profession was based on feelings of frustration and burnout.

“However, I want my research to work toward policies and programs that will address challenges that teachers, especially in struggling schools, are up against.”

Grant’s research examines the writings on teacher retention by Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania who is concerned with the character of elementary and secondary schools as workplaces, teachers as employees and teaching as a job. According to his research, the turnover rate has been on the increase in recent years, as there are far more beginners in teaching than ever before, and they are less likely to stay in the job.

“The retention issue creates special problems for hard-to-staff schools that are underperforming,” Grant said. “We know more experienced teachers are, on average, better at raising student achievement levels than new ones, and high turnover can be costly to school systems in terms of recruitment and training costs.”

She wants to measure, through the application of chaos theory—which posits that seemingly random events are actually predictable—how working conditions in schools, such as class size, hours and classroom disruptions, can affect the social-emotional health of teachers. While the theory has not had extensive application in educational research, it has been used to examine the environmental effects of the home, family and neighborhood settings on child development.

Chaos theory suggests difficulty seeing the connection between teaching and learning. How can a teacher know what is taught is best for the student’s learning in the short-term and long-term? Sometimes good assumptions can be made by studying students. However, all students are subject to a variety of chaos in their lives at school and in the world.

“While many people have looked at school climate, violence, classroom disruptions, etc., in the K-12 sphere, I am curious to see what a measurement of chaos in K-12 would reveal,” said Grant. “It is still very early in the game, but I would theorize that chaos would be prevalent in higher-need, lower-performing schools and would be predictive of staff turnover.”