Taking on teacher attrition
4 steps districts can take to improve teacher retentionBy Hilary Scharton
vice president of K12 product strategy, Canvas by Instructure February 20th, 2018
We once believed that teacher effectiveness dramatically increased for the first three to five years on the job and then plateaued. But recent research suggests that substantial growth in effectiveness can be seen for the first 12 years on the job, and likely longer. This suggests that teacher quality develops over time and that experience can influence effectiveness.
We also know that students who have highly effective teachers for three years in a row can score 50 percentile points higher on achievement tests than students who have less effective teachers three years in a row.
But academic gains are just one of the outcomes of high teacher effectiveness. Research showed that as teachers gained experience, their students’ absenteeism rates declined. Experienced teachers tend to be better at classroom management and motivating students, resulting in fewer conduct issues and higher attendance.
And then there are soft skills, such as the ability to collaborate and problem solve, think creatively, and be empathetic. These skills—which have been linked to higher employment, greater job satisfaction, and lower crime rates—are developed, not taught, and teachers are a huge part of that development.
A costly reality
In the last 20 years, teacher attrition has nearly doubled, and districts are finding it harder than ever to place a highly-qualified and effective teacher in every classroom. And when 16 to 30 percent of teachers leave the profession every year, districts have the very difficult challenge of finding an effective teacher for every classroom.
With a shrinking pool of teachers to choose from, districts are forced to hire less experienced or underqualified teachers to fill vacant spots. This means that at any given time, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of students in the United States are being taught by subpar teachers; a scary reality since one year of suboptimal teaching can lead to as much as nine months of lost learning, and learning gaps for years to come, according to Scott Reeder’s The Hidden Costs of Tenure.
And then there’s the financial side of it. According to a study of teacher turnover by the National Commission of Teaching and America’s Future, the financial impact to school districts to replace teachers ranges from $1 billion to $2.2 billion annually.
Reversing the trend
About one-third of today’s teachers will retire in the next five years. Among those not of retirement age, a general dissatisfaction with their job is the most common reason for leaving the profession. Teachers also cited lack of supportive leadership, lack of collaboration, lack of technology resources, and sporadic professional development as key factors in their decisions to leave.
What can we do to improve retention and make sure every classroom has an effective, highly-qualified teacher? Let’s look at a few ways districts are addressing these top teacher concerns.
1. Address salary. According to a recent Ed Week survey, 25 percent of teachers leave because of salary concerns. A few years ago, many states increased teacher pay to improve satisfaction rates and increase retention. Unfortunately, the results were minimal, and the improved attitude resulting from increased wages was short-lived. Many districts are now exploring options that are not compensation-based.
2. Build strong school leadership. The Ed Week survey suggests that leadership may be even more important than salary in improving teacher retention. Eighteen percent of respondents cited leadership as a key factor in any decision about whether to go or stay on the job, while 17 percent cited salary considerations.
Make sure district and school leadership is aligned and that you have timely and ongoing communication. Provide leadership-development opportunities for district and school leaders and require check-in and evaluation. Create a strong vision for your district, align all goals and initiatives to that vision, and communicate it to every leader and teacher in the district. Encourage communication between teachers and leaders and provide tools to make that easy.
3. Start a teacher-mentorship program. The attrition rate for teachers within the first three years is nearly double that of those who have been teaching for more than five years. These rates are even higher when new teachers do not get high-quality mentoring in their early years. Many districts are implementing teacher-mentorship programs, pairing a new teacher with a veteran teacher in the same grade or subject, and providing them with common planning time to collaborate. The mentor serves as an extra resource and support for the new teacher, helping to provide immediate access to a strong teacher network.
4. Improve professional development (PD). In the EdWeek survey, teachers reported that common planning time with other teachers at their school is the most effective form of PD for improving classroom instruction. In the same survey 42 percent of teachers reported having little to no influence on the PD available to them.
Providing teachers with common planning time each week gives them a forum to do this. To maximize this planning time, districts should leverage technology that makes it easy to capture and share ideas, lessons, and resources with one another. Also, give teachers choice in their PD—both in topic and delivery. Provide a catalog of courses on a variety of topics and let teachers create their own PD pathway by choosing the topics most relevant and interesting to them. While some teachers may prefer face-to-face, others might prefer a virtual environment. Providing teachers with options lets them take ownership in their learning and increases the chances for success.
Teachers shape the future
It’s imperative that we equip our teachers with the skills and resources they need to be successful, so we can slow down attrition, improve retention, and increase teacher effectiveness. After all, they aren’t just preparing today’s students for future success in school and life—they’re creating the leaders that will shape our tomorrow.
Hillary Scharton is vice president of K12 product strategy for Canvas. She draws from her experience in working with K12 schools to understand the needs of principals, teachers, and students.