Recruitment & Retention

Study Looks at California Teacher Retention

By Linda Jacobson — May 01, 2007 6 min read
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California teachers who leave education before they reach retirement say they feel bogged down by bureaucracy and a lack of support for their work in the classroom, according to a new report on teacher retention in the state, which has the nation’s largest population of public school teachers, more than 300,000.

Those who stay in teaching, by contrast, say they have strong relationships with other staff members and chances to contribute to decisions that affect their schools, according to the report by the Center for Teacher Quality at California State University-Sacramento.

Released April 26, the study comes as the state is in the midst of re-examining its school finance and governance systems. In March, researchers released a package of studies declaring those systems “broken,” and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Advisory Committee on Education Excellence is expected to announce some plans before the end of the year. (“California’s Schooling Is ‘Broken’,” March 21, 2007.)

“A Possible Dream: Retaining California Teachers So All Students Learn” is available from the Center for Teacher Quality at the California State University.

Those experts should consider making recommendations that would contribute to teacher retention, says Ken Futernick, the author of the retention study and the director of K-12 studies at the teacher-quality center.

“In order to calculate how much it costs to educate a child,” his report says, “one must be able to calculate how much it costs (and saves!) to retain our best teachers.”

In 2005, 21 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools in California were lacking a teaching credential and, statewide, 15 percent of high school mathematics and English teachers were teaching outside the fields in which they were certified, according to Mr. Futernick.

The report says that 22 percent of California teachers leave after their first four years in the classroom, and that every year 10 percent of the teachers working in schools with high concentrations of poor students transfer to other schools.

“If the state does not take action to reduce the qualified-teacher shortage, experts have shown that it will only worsen,” the report says. “The very fact that so many teachers flee certain types of schools should serve as an unambiguous signal that something about these schools’ work environment is wrong and needs to be fixed.”

Financial Incentives Not Enough

For the study, Mr. Futernick surveyed about 2,000 current and former California teachers.

Teachers who left education because they were dissatisfied complained about issues such as excessive paperwork, a lack of planning time or teaching supplies, unnecessary meetings, and drawn-out procedures for requesting simple repairs.

In follow-up interviews, one 30-year veteran said, “I feel as if I teach between the interruptions.”

Mr. Futernick writes that the state currently spends hundreds of millions of dollars on programs designed to recruit, screen, and prepare new teachers, but that more needs to be done to address the frustrations that are making teachers leave particular schools.

While signing bonuses, salary incentives, and other monetary rewards have become popular across the country as a way to lure teachers to poor schools, Mr. Futernick says state policymakers need to look beyond such “quick fix” solutions.

“When people get focused on money, what gets lost in that discussion is the importance of things that don’t cost money,” he said in an interview.

Eric Hirsch, the executive director of the Center for Teaching Quality, a nonprofit research organization in Hillsborough, N.C., who has conducted extensive research on working conditions for teachers and their link to student achievement, agrees that higher pay is not enough to change the school climate. (“States Scrutinize Teacher Working Conditions,” March 30, 2005.)

And other experts have suggested that although financial incentives might draw a teacher to an apparently tough assignment, they are not sufficient to keep the teacher there. (“Teacher-Pay Incentives Popular But Unproven,” Sept. 27, 2006.)

Findings from the California study—especially about compensation—mirror those from studies Mr. Hirsch has done in eight states, beginning with North Carolina in 2004.

Mr. Futernick, for example, found that when teachers felt that the teaching and learning conditions in their schools were poor, they also viewed their salaries as inadequate. But if they felt positive about their schools, and supported by their schools’ administrations, they tended also to view their compensation as one of the reasons for staying in their jobs.

Why They Stay

Mr. Futernick found that teachers who stay at their schools—even if they serve children from low-income families—overwhelmingly cited the satisfaction of being involved in decisionmaking.

In follow-up interviews with researchers, some teachers emphasized their contributions to decisions on curriculum and instruction, while others said they appreciated having input into deciding how to spend extra money at the school.

Teacher Retention

“A Possible Dream: Retaining California Teachers So All Students Learn” recommends a number of ways to keep teachers from leaving.

■ Assess teaching conditions locally and continuously. Surveys and focus groups should be conducted often.

■ Elevate California’s student funding to, at least, adequate levels.

■ Refocus school leadership on instructional quality and high-quality teaching and learning conditions.

■ Establish statewide standards for school teaching and learning conditions.

■ Assess and address specific challenges in retention of special education teachers.

SOURCE: Ken Futernick, California State University-Sacramento

“This kind of involvement gives you control over what you do,” said one elementary school teacher who had been asked for an opinion on buying a reading program for the computer lab. “If you have buy-in … you’re going to do a much better job than if you’re just told what you need to be teaching.”

Others who stayed felt a strong sense of collegiality among the school staff, or believed they were having a positive effect on children’s lives.

“It is a stressful job, but I have grown to love these kids,” James Patterson, a special education teacher of severely emotionally disturbed students at a private school in Pasadena, wrote in an e-mail in response to a reporter’s question.

But as a former substitute teacher in the 708,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, he has also experienced a lack of support, he said.

“I think teachers in the regular school districts are tired of spending so much time to battle for prestige, income, supplies, class size, lack of books, etc., that they just want to give up,” he wrote.

In his study, Mr. Futernick also gives attention to issues facing special education teachers, who he found often leave for teaching jobs in general education because of the “complex and changing” individualized education programs they are required to write, “hostile teaching environments created by parents and student advocates,” and poor relationships with the rest of the staff.

In his recommendations, he suggests that teacher education programs do more to bring future special education teachers and regular education teachers together during their preservice training.

Setting Standards

Following the example of North Carolina—which has 30 working-condition standards for schools—Mr. Futernick recommends that California establish statewide standards, or at least guidelines, for areas such as scheduled planning time, instructional supplies, and professional development.

He also relates his recommendations to California’s settlement of the Williams v. California court case in 2004, which led to minimum standards for facilities, teacher quality, and textbooks in the state’s most disadvantaged schools. (“Inspecting for Quality,” Jan. 4, 2006.)

David W. Gordon, the superintendent of the Sacramento County Office of Education and a member of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s education advisory panel, said the study provides districts with valuable suggestions on how to retain teachers.

“The major message for me is that districts that are high-performing and highly functioning create the conditions in which teachers want to work,” he said. But he hesitated to agree that setting statewide standards is the right step. “I think a lot of the stuff that is compliance-oriented misses the point,” Mr. Gordon said.

Mr. Hirsch pointed out that districts—and even individual schools—don’t need to wait for statewide attention to working conditions and can conduct surveys of their own.

A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2007 edition of Education Week as Study Looks at California Teacher Retention


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