The Retention Imperative

By Anthony Rebora — January 01, 2003 2 min read

The teacher-recruitment conversation has lately shifted, without much notice, from shortages to retention.

A much-publicized January report by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, for example, argues that the United States does not actually have a shortage of new teachers. “The real school staffing problem” NCTAF states, “is retention.”

Citing data from the National Center for Education Statistics, NCTAF notes that “approximately a third of America’s new teachers leave teaching sometime during their first three years of teaching; almost half may leave during the first five years.” This trend, the group notes, is only aggravated by emergency policies to hire “unqualified and underprepared replacements.”

To stem the flow, NCTAF offers a three-part solution:

  • Reorganize schools to support teachers’ success. NCTAF recommends ending teachers’ isolation by enabling them to work in collaboration with school leaders and other teachers; reducing school sizes; and enhancing teachers’ work and communication through technology.
  • Strengthen teacher preparation and licensure standards. Teacher preparation, NCTAF says, should be oriented around building subject and pedagogical knowledge, providing clinical practice and entry-level support, and assessing performance. Licensure systems, in turn, must be refocused and bolstered.
  • Create greater career opportunities. The teaching profession must be both more structured and more rewarding, NCTAF says. The report urges mentoring and peer-review processes; integrated professional development opportunities; more “protected time"; pay systems that reward knowledge and skills; and recognition based on certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
  • In a near echo, the Southern Regional Education Board also released a January policy report advising that “helping new teachers become veteran teachers is an important step in addressing teacher shortages.”

    The SREB has found that “after five years, nearly half of new teachers left teaching in the state where they began teaching.” Hanging on to teachers just a little while longer, the group suggests, is key: “After about the seventh year, as teachers gain experience, the rate at which they leave the classroom starts to level off.”

    The main factors influencing new teachers to leave schools, according to SREB, include: inadequate preparation; poor working conditions (prominently including lack of support from administrators and difficult assignments); and salary and benefit concerns (although, according to SREB, those are not usually a primary cause for departure).

    SREB’s checklist for retaining teachers suggests easing--and closely tracking-- the assignments of new teachers and instituting structured feedback and mentoring programs.

    Despite their uniform arguments, these reports have not escaped counter charges, however. NCTAF’s report, in particular, generated a flurry of responses on the Web. Skeptics criticized its emphasis on traditional preparation programs and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, characterizing such entities “monopolies.” Some also questioned its conclusions about teacher retention being a special problem.

    Writing in the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation’s “The Education Gadfly,” Chester E. Finn, Jr. voiced caution over policies narrowly focused on retention. "[The] conviction that turnover in teaching is a bad thing,” wrote Finn, “flies in the face of the view of teaching that says short-termers should be welcomed and made the most of in ways that complement the work of career educators.”