Recruitment & Retention

Principals Drop Ball on Teacher Retention, Study Says

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 30, 2012 5 min read
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Policymakers, administrators, and advocacy groups have correctly diagnosed a major problem plaguing the teaching profession—high rates of teacher attrition—but have missed the mark in their prescriptions for fixing it, concludes a new report released this morning by the New York City-based TNTP, formerly The New Teacher Project.

In essence, it contends, most school leaders fail to identify and encourage the very best teachers to stay in schools. In part, it says, that’s because of the K-12 field’s tendency to uncouple decisions about retention from discussions of teacher quality.

The consequences of these practices, according to the report, has particularly affected low-performing schools, where a revolving door gradually makes it harder to develop a critical mass of effective teachers to sustain improvements. In such schools, the report estimates, a high-performing teacher who leaves will be replaced by an equally effective peer less than a tenth of the time.

Officials at the 3 million-member National Education Association largely seconded the report’s main thrust, despite some reservations about its accompanying recommendations.

“It’s a common sense idea many of us who have been involved in education felt was true. Now we have some evidence that there’s a difference between good retention and bad retention,” said Segun C. Eubanks, the director of teacher quality for the NEA. “I think that’s an important contribution to the field.”

Studying Retention

Rates of teacher attrition estimated at anywhere from a quarter to half of new teachers in their first five years on the job have been the cause of much concern among policymakers, and spawned a raft of mentoring and induction programs over the past decade. (“Oft-Cited Statistic Likely Inaccurate,” June 13, 2007).

They have also been the focus of intense study, with retention rates being linked in separate research to teachers’ working conditions and performance.

The TNTP report delves more deeply into the connections among those three threads. For the study, TNTP officials examined the personnel records of some 90,000 teachers across four unnamed urban school districts. It gathered available individual teacher “value-added” data for a subset of 20,000 teachers. (Value-added is a statistical methodology that uses student test scores to generate an estimate of a teacher’s impact on the academic progress of his or her pupils.)

They coupled this data with information from surveys, interviews, and focus groups with the teachers.

Of the teachers studied, the group identified a subset of about 20 percent of the teachers as “irreplaceables” because their students made two to three more months’ worth of academic progress compared to those taught by the average teacher in the district.

Among the report’s findings:

• The school districts lost their most successful teachers at a rate comparable to the attrition of the least successful teachers.

• “Irreplaceable” teachers who experienced two or more of eight different recruitment strategies—including advancement opportunities, regular performance feedback, and public recognition—said they planned to stay at their schools nearly twice as long as other teachers.

• In one of the districts studied, only a fifth of the lowest-performing teachers were encouraged to leave, while more than a third were given incentives to stay.

• “Irreplaceable” teachers were much more likely to stay at schools with a strong instructional culture in which principals set strong performance expectations for them.

The report reserves particularly strong criticism for principals, who it contends have misjudged the retention issue by turning a blind eye to quality in retention decisions.

“Principals tell themselves low-performers are going to improve, and therefore they don’t have to address it; and they say there’s nothing they can do to retain high-performing teachers,” said Timothy Daly, the president of TNTP. “Both of those things we see as largely untrue.”

Recommendations Offered

The report makes policy recommendations for more-strategic retention of teachers, several of which touch on hotly debated policy issues. They include paying the best teachers six-figure salaries; requiring principals to set goals for retaining “irreplaceable” teachers; monitoring working conditions; and dismissing teachers who, after remediation, cannot teach as well as the average novice. Together, the report suggests, these strategies could also raise the rigor of the profession.

Mr. Eubanks of the NEA added that he’d have liked to have seen the report draw a stronger connection between teacher preparation and retention. Newer training programs that focus on beefed-up apprenticeships for novices often have the improved retention of effective teachers as a goal, he noted.

“The first part of good retention is that you’re hiring and training the right folks, so they’re ready from day one in the first place,” he said. “A question we’d have is what impact a much more thoughtful recruitment and preparation system would have on this whole retention issue.”

Scholars, meanwhile, struggled to fit some of the findings into the context of the increasingly complex body of research on the issue of teacher retention.

For one, the relative harmfulness of turnover remains a subject of some debate. Economists, including Erik A. Hanushek of Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, have found that it’s the weaker teachers who tend to leave low-achieving schools, a phenomenon that theoretically should improve student achievement.

But a recent working paper by three scholars, published by the Washington-based National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, added a new wrinkle to the debate: It showed that high levels of teacher attrition can depress levels of student achievement even among students whose teachers stayed put.

Such mixed findings continue to leave educators guessing at the right balance to strike with retention, said Richard M. Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of a number of frequently cited studies on teacher retention.

“I’m often asked, ‘What’s the optimum amount of teacher turnover? We don’t want too much, we don’t want too little’,” Mr. Ingersoll said. “It’s a really hard issue. I don’t know the answer.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2012 edition of Education Week

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