Equity & Diversity

Researchers Offer Prescriptions for Retaining Teachers

By Jordan Moeny — October 10, 2014 3 min read
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It’s a question that’s been asked repeatedly before: Why is it so hard for some schools to find enough effective teachers? According to researchers who spoke at a meeting in Washington earlier this week, however, the real problem isn’t finding teachers but keeping them. And addressing that challenge may require education leaders and policymakers to think anew about how schools are organized.

At a panel hosted by the Albert Shanker Institute and the American Federation of Teachers on Wednesday, four leaders in education research and policy discussed the lack of qualified staff in high-need schools and offered potential solutions to the problem.

The panelists included Richard Ingersoll, a researcher and professor at the University of Pennsylvania; Duke University economics professor and education researcher Helen Ladd; Peter McWalters, a consultant on education systems effectiveness and former teacher; and Mary Cathryn Ricker, executive vice president of the AFT.

Though high-need schools are typically associated with urban school districts, hard-to-staff schools are not simply an urban problem, Richer stated. “This is an American problem,” she said, noting that discussions of school staffing cannot overlook rural America, where some of the most understaffed schools in the nation are located.

The panelists also stressed that teacher shortages are not a recruitment issue so much as a retention issue, as Ingersoll has demonstrated in his oft-cited studies on teacher-retention rates. Ingersoll’s research finds that 45 percent of turnover occurs in only 25 percent of schools. These schools are disproportionately located in high-poverty and urban areas.

“We have the wrong diagnosis and the wrong prescription ... It’s not that we produce too few [teachers,] it’s that we lose too many,” Ingersoll said.

He emphasized that any solution to school understaffing needs to focus not on making teaching more attractive to potential teachers but on retaining teachers once they enter the workforce. I said that the way to fix the problem “is to improve the quality of teachers and teaching, and the way to do that is to improve the quality of the teaching job.”

That starts with administration.

“The key factor that matters,” said Ladd, “is school leadership,” particularly “transformational leadership” that focuses on more than simply instructional issues.

McWalters agreed, suggesting that leaders create environments where teachers can better collaborate with each and have more power in decision-making processes.

He also made the point that state and federal solutions tend to “overprescribe,” mandating by-the-book programs and strict rubrics instead of supporting teachers and schools who are willing to take risks to improve student learning. “We try to teacher-proof our system,” he said, which makes it hard for teachers to take ownership in their work. The goal should not be “command and control,” but “search and create.”

On the whole, institutional issues tend to be the key problem where turnover is concerned. “In all of my years of teaching,” said Ricker, “I’ve never met a teacher who has left a school because of the student population.”

This was supported by Ingersoll, whose studies have shown that while student behavior is an important issue for some teachers, it is not the most common complaint among educators. In fact, it is the only one of the top nine sources of dissatisfaction that relates directly to students. Among other issues, teachers leaving the profession tend to feel that they have too little influence in schools and that they are overburdened.

Ricker suggested that policymakers and reformers, instead of questioning whether teachers are doing their jobs, first ask: “Is the teacher being given the supplies and resources needed to do their job?”

Chart Source: Richard Ingersoll, University of Pennsylvania.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.