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“WHAT KEEPS GOOD TEACHERS IN THE CLASSROOM?”: New Alliance Issue Brief Examines Which Teachers Leave and Why

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"Putting the best teachers in our classrooms is a good start," said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia.

A teacher’s decision to stay at or leave a particular school is contingent on a variety of factors, ranging from the teacher’s personal characteristics to his or her satisfaction with the school’s environment. But to keep teachers in the classroom and help them to succeed there, it is critical to give teachers the help they need, such as mentoring and support programs designed for new teachers-especially those in struggling schools. So says “What Keeps Good Teachers in the Classroom?: Understanding and Reducing Teacher Turnover,” a new brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the costs associated with teachers leaving their schools or the teaching profession, the characteristics of those likely to leave, and what can be done to prevent unnecessary and costly turnover.

“Putting the best teachers in our classrooms is a good start,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “But they need to want to stay. Teachers put the quality in education, and it’s up to us to make sure the quality is in the teachers.”

According to the brief, approximately 157,000 teachers leave the profession every year. In addition, more than 232,000 other teachers change schools in pursuit of better working conditions. Together, these numbers mean that an estimated 12 percent of the total teacher workforce is in flux every year-and these figures do not include the teachers who retire.

The brief finds that the costs of teacher turnover can vary widely by district and may include signing bonuses, subject-matter stipends, and other recruiting costs specific to hard-to-staff schools. According to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF), urban schools spend an average of $70,000 a year on costs associated with teacher transfers-whether teachers leave the district or not-while nonurban schools spend around $33,000 each. In addition to school-level costs, NCTAF estimates that an urban district central office spends another $8,750 for every teacher that leaves the district entirely whereas nonurban districts spend $6,250. By combining these school- and district-level costs, NCTAF places the cumulative costs for all schools and districts across the country-to hire, recruit, and train the replacement teachers-at a staggering $7.34 billion.

In addition to the costs incurred as a direct result of the recruitment and hiring processes, schools and districts lose even more because of intrinsic costs associated with lost productivity and human capital-not to mention the price that students pay when qualified teachers leave in the negative effect on their academic achievement. According to research cited in the brief, teacher quality is especially critical to help low-performing, minority students. A study of Chicago public high schools finds that a higher-quality teacher had the greatest impact, measured by the increase in students’ test scores, among African American ninth-grade students. Another study, also focused on high schools, finds that having a highly qualified teacher may even compensate for racial and socioeconomic disadvantages.

Examining why teachers choose to leave the profession or transfer to another school, the Alliance brief finds that working conditions play a much larger role than retirement in explaining why teachers transfer to different schools and districts or leave the profession entirely. Citing research on teacher turnover, the brief notes that 38.1 percent of public school teachers who transferred from one school to another said that moving to get a better teaching assignment was the deciding factor. Similarly, dissatisfaction with workplace conditions (32.7 percent) and dissatisfaction with the support received from administrators at their previous school (37.2 percent) were equally cited as other important reasons in their decision to move.

The brief also examines what kinds of teachers are leaving the profession and finds that the lowest-quality teachers, as measured by the degree of change in student performance after a year in a particular teacher’s classroom, tend to have higher rates of turnover, and that the more effective teachers tend to stay-that’s the good news. The bad news is that the most effective teachers are more likely to move away from the most-challenging school and into schools with relatively lower concentrations of poverty and higher performance levels.

“The lower turnover rates of effective teachers among challenging schools is encouraging,” the brief reads. “But students being served by the most-disadvantaged schools should not be neglected; neither should the teachers who have the desire and knowledge to contribute to students’ academic achievement, but lack the tools necessary to do so. Instead, systems should be designed to ensure that the best teachers are teaching the students with the highest challenges and that teachers receive the training and support they need to help students succeed.”

The brief concludes that a comprehensive induction program that includes varying degrees of training, support, and assessment during a teacher’s first years on the job proves most effective in encouraging teachers to stay in the classroom long enough to make a difference for their students. It says that a well-designed, comprehensive induction program during the new teacher’s first two years in the profession combines high-quality mentoring with release time for both new teachers and mentor teachers to allow them to usefully engage with one another; targeted and ongoing quality professional development; common planning time with other teachers in the school; and networking with teachers outside the school. The induction process culminates with an evaluation to identify a teacher’s strengths and weaknesses, target future professional development, and determine if the individual should move forward in the profession. Unfortunately, less than 1 percent of beginning teachers received comprehensive induction in 2000, but those who did were more than 50 percent less likely to leave.

“Too many effective, new, and academically strong teachers who have the potential to positively influence the nation’s students leave or move away from disadvantaged classrooms every year because supports are not available to them,” the brief reads. “High-quality, comprehensive induction, although not a panacea on its own, can give the latter group the tools necessary to succeed in challenging classrooms and help new teachers become effective in a shorter amount of time. . . . When teachers are not supported, the loss-to taxpayers, educators, schools, communities, and students-is immense.”

The complete brief is available at https://all4ed.org/reports-factsheets/what-keeps-good-teachers-in-the-classroom-understanding-and-reducing-teacher-turnover/.

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