Stop Teacher Turnover! Practical Tips Within a School Principal’s Control and the Research Behind Retaining Good Teachers

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By: Libba Lyons

Takeaway: Teacher turnover is not inevitable. Leaders can reduce teacher turnover by addressing causes that are within their sphere of influence.

 

A story of teacher turnover in a low-performing school

This is a real story from the field, but pseudonyms were used to protect anonymity.

During our Applied Research Center team’s first visit as external manager of a school, the principal walked into the meeting room still talking on her radio. “Ms. Brown, can you please help out in Ms. Smith’s room? We don’t have a sub yet.”

The radio crackled back, “I’m already covering in 3rd grade.”

The principal stopped, staring upwards in intense thought. She turned quickly to the door then realized our research team was in the room, waiting for a meeting with her. “I’m sorry. I’ll be right back …”

Then the radio cracked again. “Sub’s here. We got it covered.”

The principal breathed a quick sigh – “O.K. Thanks. I’ll be in a meeting for a while.”

The principal smiled broadly as she sat at the table with us, turning down the volume on her radio. It continued chattering with urgent messages. “It’s just crazy today. Teachers out, kids acting up – just part of being a principal!” She laughed, but her smile could not hide her fatigue and stress.

Our research team was visiting the school to begin several days of a comprehensive needs assessment that would help us understand the root causes for the school’s persistently low performance. It was immediately clear that teacher turnover was causing major disruptions to school operations. In that year alone, 23 of the school’s 33 teachers had been replaced. The principal told us that her teachers were burned out from dealing with the needs of the high-poverty students attending the school. She said that she was powerless to stop the endless turnover of faculty.

This was in 2018 – long before the pandemic. Since then, COVID has disrupted every school in the nation. What became of this school? Was the principal correct in thinking that there was nothing she could do about teacher turnover? I will keep you in suspense for a while, but this story has a happy ending. For now, let’s examine the problem of teacher turnover in more detail.

 

Teacher turnover is a problem nationwide

Teacher turnover is not a new problem

Although teacher turnover has received much news coverage since the pandemic began, statewide turnover rates have varied between 5 and 8 percent over the past 35 years (Aldeman, Goldhaber, & Theobald, 2021; Goldhaber & Theobald, 2021; Dee & Goldhaber, 2017). Current data does not indicate a greater incidence of teacher resignations, despite frequent media reports (Aldeman, 2022; Barnum, 2021).

Nevertheless, historical trends indicate that teacher turnover increases during periods of economic growth and falling unemployment rates. As the nation recovers from the pandemic, it is likely that we will see more teacher turnover (Goldhaber & Theobald, 2021).

Where is teacher turnover most prevalent?

RAND (Diliberti, Schwartz, & Grant, 2021) reports the rate of teacher turnover ranges from 12 to 17 percent in the Northeast, Midwest, and West, while the turnover rate in the South is 55 percent.

Figure 1. Source: Diliberti, Schwartz, & Grant (2021)

 

Which schools see teachers leaving the profession at higher rates?

The greatest variation in teacher turnover is among different schools. In fact, much of the variation in teacher turnover is explained by three school characteristics (Aldeman, Goldhaber, & Theobald, 2021):

    1. Urbanicity
    2. Percentage of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches
    3. Percentage of minority students

Other researchers agree that teacher attrition rates vary depending on schools and who they serve:

  • Student race and ethnicity: Schools with the largest populations of students of color have a teacher turnover rate that is 70 percent higher than schools with few students of color (Carver-Thomas & Darling-Hammond, 2017).
  • Student socioeconomic status: The teacher turnover rate is greater in high-poverty schools compared to low-poverty schools (Aldeman, Goldhaber, & Theobald, 2021), with Title I schools seeing 50 percent more teacher turnover than non-Title I schools (Carver-Thomas & Darling-Hammond, 2017).

 

Research says students of color, students from low SES backgrounds, and students living in urban areas are more likely to attend schools with high teacher turnover rates. Retain good teachers with this practical guide:… Click To Tweet

 

Why is high teacher turnover a problem?

Disruption of education – The disruptions caused by teacher turnover have a negative effect on the quality of instruction, particularly in low-achieving schools (Hanushek, Rivkin, & Shiman, 2016).
 
Disproportionate impact on Black and Hispanic students, English Learners, and students with disabilities – Teacher turnover also has a disproportionate impact on Black and Hispanic students, English Learners, and Students with Disabilities, all of whom have been historically subjected to more frequent changes of teachers. The rate of teacher turnover in schools with high concentrations of minority students is 70 percent higher than in schools with fewer minority students (Carver-Thomas & Darling-Hammond, 2017).
 
Disproportionate impact on students in high-poverty schools – School poverty rates are highly correlated to achievement gaps, and minority students are disproportionately represented in high-poverty schools (Reardon, Weathers, Jang, & Kalogrides, 2021). It is these schools that struggle most to attract and retain skilled teachers (Reardon, 2015). Rates of turnover in high-poverty schools equate to yearly replacement and onboarding of 400 more teachers than in low-poverty schools (Alderman, Goldhaber, & Theobald, 2021).

 

What causes teacher turnover?

Teachers cite three main reasons for leaving schools or completely leaving the profession: working conditions (Carver-Thomas & Darling-Hammond, 2017), the lack of respect shown to them as professionals (Streeter, 2021), and stagnant or decreasing academic achievement (Toth, 2021; Hanushek, Rivkin, & Shiman, 2016).

1. Working conditions
Working conditions include such factors as stress and health concerns, safety, and work/life imbalance (Streeter, 2021; Diliberti, Schwartz, & Grant, 2021), as well as student behavior (Toth, 2021). One of the most frequently cited problems with working conditions is a lack of administrative support. Teachers who feel their administration is unsupportive are twice as likely to leave than teachers who feel supported (Carver-Thomas & Darling-Hammond, 2017).

2. Lack of respect as a professional
Teachers want to be respected as professionals and accorded opportunities to exercise agency in their instructional decisions (McChesney & Aldridge, 2019). All too often, however, teachers in low-achieving schools must use scripted curricula within highly controlled and compliance-driven classrooms, depriving them of professional agency over their own practice (Toth, 2021).

3. Stagnant or decreasing academic achievement
Teachers are demoralized when students do not perform well (Toth, 2021). Persistently low student achievement may induce teachers to leave, especially those in low-performing schools. This sets up a vicious cycle of disruptions that further degrades the quality of teaching and learning (Hanushek, Rivkin, & Shiman, 2016).

Other factors
There are many other causes of teacher turnover, such as low pay, testing and accountability mandates, family concerns, financial needs, and general dissatisfaction with teaching as a profession (Carver-Thomas & Darling-Hammond, 2017). But these factors are generally beyond the control of principals.

Black female school principal sits at a desk with laptop and notebooks and holds up a sign that says “help,” signaling she is overwhelmed by teacher turnover.

 

What can leaders do to fix the problem of teacher turnover?

Teacher turnover is not inevitable, nor is it beyond a school leader’s ability to fix. According to our Applied Research Center’s work partnering with schools across the country, the best places to start are developing your school leadership team’s capacity and determining the root causes you’ll need to tackle together.

Build your leadership team

School leader turnover is a growing problem. Results from a recent survey by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (2021) indicate that one-third of principals are thinking of leaving the profession. Most principals surveyed identified the teacher shortage and increased workload as issues of extreme concern.

You cannot fix the problem of teacher turnover by yourself through hero leadership – you will only burn yourself out. Your first order of business is to surround yourself with a strong school leadership team who can share the load with you. A strong leadership team is as essential to your well-being as it is to the school.

Distribute leadership to your team so everyone owns improvement in the three areas of concern:

    1. Schoolwide conditions
    2. Teacher professionalism and autonomy
    3. Academic equity

 

3 common root causes of teacher turnover

Next, recognize and deal with the root causes of teacher turnover in your school. The following three root causes are some of the most common. Be honest with yourself when reflecting on the questions below. You may want to assign a rating to each question on a 1-5 point scale and seek evidence to support your thinking (such as classroom observations, teacher surveys, etc.).

1. Establish Healthful, Safe, and Respectful Schoolwide Conditions

  • Does your school protect the safety and health of teachers and students?
  • Are there procedures and routines that all staff and students know, understand, and follow?
  • Are you supporting your teachers in creating and reinforcing classroom management practices that foster student self-regulation and mutual respect?
  • Are you providing resources for self-care of teachers – and for yourself?

 
2. Build Teacher Professionalism and Autonomy

Effective teachers are more likely to remain in schools than less effective teachers (Ronfeldt, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2012); and regular, supportive communication from school leadership encourages teacher professional growth and retention (Borman & Dowling, 2008).

  • Are you and your leadership team in classrooms observing the quality of instruction and supporting teachers with non-evaluative coaching and feedback to grow their practice?
  • Are you providing and protecting collaborative time for teacher planning and mutual support?
  • Are your teacher leaders providing coaching and peer support to teachers and professional learning communities?

Research indicates that mentoring and feedback are essential aspect of professional development that fosters teacher retention (Hanushek, Rivkin, & Shiman, 2016); it is also critical to the development and retention of early career teachers (Borman & Dowling, 2008).

3. Ensure Academic Equity

Quality instruction is critical to ensuring that all students perform at high academic levels. As student performance improves, teacher efficacy and commitment grow.

  • Are all students in your school receiving rich and rigorous core instruction?
  • Are you and your leadership team collecting and examining daily evidence of student learning?
  • Do you use student evidence of learning to inform your leadership team’s goals and actions to improve instruction each day?

Asking these questions will direct your team’s attention to the key systems within your school that directly impact teacher turnover.

3 common root causes of high teacher turnover - 1. Schoolwide conditions, 2. Teacher professionalism and autonomy, 3. Academic equity. Surround yourself with a strong school leadership team & tackle these areas of concern together.… Click To Tweet

 

Example from the field: How IE’s partner school reduced its teacher turnover rate by 78% in one year

Returning to the story from the beginning of this article, you will be happy to learn that our partner school, Lakewood Elementary School in St. Petersburg, Florida, overcame the problems besetting them. By attending diligently to systems over which they had control, they transformed their school from the lowest-performing to one of the highest performing in the state.

Our Applied Research Center partnered with Lakewood for three years. In one year, they reduced their teacher turnover from 23 to 5 teachers. In 2021 – despite the pandemic – they replaced only 1 teacher. IE’s full-length case study explains how the school attained such high levels of performance and teacher retention.

A summary of the case study results and its connection to teacher turnover follows:

Elevating schoolwide conditions

Negative student behavior at Lakewood had created an environment that was not conducive to student learning nor teacher satisfaction. In our research center’s interviews about the school’s conditions before our partnership began, one teacher said, “It felt like working in a war zone.” Students fought with one another and walked out of class in the middle of instructional time. The vast majority of students were more than two grade levels behind, according to our initial diagnostic testing. Many teachers resigned or transferred out, citing the difficult conditions.

IE partnered with the school leadership team and teachers to build students’ ownership of their own behavior and self-regulation with consistent protocols in academic teams. Instead of focusing on controlling negative behavior, we focused on academics and empowering students to engage in their learning by self-tracking their own progress and cheering one another to academic success. Negative behavior referrals decreased by 160%. See figure 2 (Toth, 2021).

Figure 2. Referrals are used when student misbehavior is too severe for the teacher to handle through classroom management, which necessitates the school’s behavior team to intervene. Lakewood students had 734 referrals in 2018, before Lakewood and IE started their partnership. Referrals dropped to 207 in 2019, 84 in 2020, and 81 in 2021 (Toth, 2021).

 

Elevating Teacher Professionalism and Autonomy

Lakewood teachers did not have as much autonomy as they wanted before our partnership began. According to one Lakewood teacher, “Everything was scripted: how the lesson went, what moment everything was supposed to happen.” What was missing from the PLCs was team collaboration, productive struggle, accountability to student data, and teacher agency. Through IE’s side-by-side coaching support in the classroom and during PLCs, in conjunction with the Lakewood leadership team’s coaching support, the school culture shifted, and more teachers decided to stay. Teacher retention increased by 78% in one year. See figure 3 (Toth, 2021).

Figure 3. Teacher turnover decreased from 23 out of 33 replaced before IE partnered with Lakewood, to only five teachers replaced after one year of partnership and one teacher replaced after three years of partnership.

 

Elevating Academic Equity

As Lakewood students experienced rigor and agency through IE’s Academic Teaming, they became more engaged and took ownership of their own learning. Teachers watched in awe as students evolved from dependent learners to independent thinkers, believed in themselves, and invested more effort into their learning. Teacher motivation increased as daily student data became the focus and teachers could see tangible improvements. Student achievement skyrocketed. See figure 4 (Toth, 2021). Lakewood went from the lowest-performing traditional public school in the state to the top 6% of traditional public elementary schools.

Figure 4. Lakewood increased achievement (proficiency) in all subjects – ELA, math, and science. Lakewood also increased learning gains and learning gains for their lowest 25% in all subjects (learning gain data for science not provided by the state). All data publicly available from the Florida Department of Education (Toth, 2021).

 

School leaders have the power to stop teacher turnover

At its core, teacher turnover is a leadership problem. To correct it, you must own those problems that you alone, as a principal, can solve:

  1. Schoolwide conditions
  2. Teacher professionalism and autonomy
  3. Academic equity

If you focus on these three areas, your teachers will stay – and your students will thrive.

 

Resources for School Leaders

References

Aldeman, C. (2022, January 17). There is no ‘Big Quit” in K-12 education. But schools have specific labor challenges that need targeted solutions. The 74. https://www.the74million.org/article/aldeman-there-is-no-big-quit-in-k-12-education-but-schools-have-specific-labor-challenges-that-need-targeted-solutions/

Aldeman, C., Goldhaber, D., Theobald, R. (2021). Examining the dimensions of teacher turnover. (CALDER Flash Brief No. 24-0421). National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. https://caldercenter.org/publications/examining-dimensions-teacher-turnover

Barnum, M. (2021, April 6). Despite pandemic, there’s little evidence of rising teacher turnover – yet. Chalkbeat National. https://www.chalkbeat.org/2021/4/6/22368846/teacher-turnover-quitting-pandemic-data-economy

Borman, G. D., & Dowling, N. M. (2008). Teacher attrition and retention: A meta-analytic and narrative review of the research. Review of Educational Research, 78(3), 367-409. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654308321455

Carver-Thomas, D. & Darling-Hammond, L. (2017). Teacher turnover: Why it matters and what we can do about it. Learning Policy Institute. https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/teacher-turnover

Dee, T. S., & Goldhaber, D. (2017). Understanding and addressing teacher shortages in the United States. Brookings. https://www.hamiltonproject.org/papers/understanding_and_addressing_teacher_shortages_in_the_united_states

Diliberti, M. K., Schwartz, H. L., & Grant, D. (2021). Stress topped the reasons why public school teachers quit, even before COVID-19. RAND Corporation. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA1121-2.html

Goldhaber, D., & Theobald, R. (2021). Teacher attrition and mobility over time. Educational Researcher, 20(10), 1-3. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X211060840

Hanushek, E. A., Rivkin, S., & Schiman, J. C. (2016). Dynamic effects of teacher turnover on the quality of instruction. (CALDER Working Paper No. 170). National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED571812.pdf

McChesney, K., & Aldridge, J. M. (2019). What gets in the way? A new conceptual model for the trajectory from teacher professional development to impact. Professional Development in Education, 47(5), 834-852, https://doi.org/10.1080/19415257.2019.1667412

National Association of Secondary School Principals. (2021, December 8). NASSP survey signals a looming mass exodus of principals from schools. https://www.nassp.org/news/nassp-survey-signals-a-looming-mass-exodus-of-principals-from-schools/

Reardon, S. F. (2015). School segregation and racial academic achievement gaps. (CEPA Working Paper No.15-12). Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis. http://cepa.stanford.edu/wp15-12

Reardon, S. F., Weathers, E. S., Fahle, E. M., Jang, H., & Kalogrides, D. (2021). Is separate still unequal? New evidence on school segregation and racial academic achievement gaps. (CEPA Working Paper No. 19-06). Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis. https://cepa.stanford.edu/wp19-06

Ronfeldt, M., Loeb, S., & Wyckoff, J. (2012). How teacher turnover harms student achievement. (CALDER Working Paper No. 70). National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. https://caldercenter.org/sites/default/files/Ronfeldt-et-al.pdf

Streeter, L. G. (2021, October 18). Why so many teachers are thinking of quitting. The Washington Post Magazine. https://www.washingtonpost.com/magazine/2021/10/18/teachers-resign-pandemic/

Toth, M. D. (2021, October 2021). How Florida’s lowest-performing school improved from an “F” to an “A” after partnering with IE. Instructional Empowerment. https://instructionalempowerment.com/blog/floridas-lowest-performing-school-improved-from-f-to-a/

 

About IE

Our vision for education is to close the achievement gap. Equip all students with the social, emotional, and cognitive skills they need to thrive in the 21st century. Expand equity by giving every child access to rigorous core instruction that empowers learners to free themselves from generational poverty.

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