School & District Management

Study Weighs Pros, Cons of Teacher Turnover

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 18, 2012 2 min read
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Teacher turnover can raise the average instructional quality of a struggling school, but there’s no guarantee that a school trying to turn around will keep its best teachers and lose its worst.

That is the conclusion of a new study by Michael Hansen, a longitudinal-data research associate at the American Institutes for Research.

The findings are part of the Turning Around Low-Performing Schools project, the most comprehensive federal study of turnaround schools to date.

For his part of the project, Mr. Hansen analyzed administrative data from 111 chronically low-performing elementary and middle schools in Florida and North Carolina, including 17 schools that saw dramatic improvement in student performance in mathematics or reading between the 2002-03 and 2007-08 school years. (Texas, the third state in the project, is prohibited from connecting student achievement data to its teachers by state law.)

The study drew on students’ test scores to compare the effectiveness of teachers who left during the school turnaround process, remained throughout, or came in after the turnaround. It did not differentiate between teachers who left the school because they were fired or for their own reasons.

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Teacher demographics were similar in the schools that did and did not improve during that time, Mr. Hansen found. While there were fewer teachers with four or more years of experience in turnaround schools in Florida, there were more experienced teachers in those schools in North Carolina.

Teachers who left schools during improvement were not always the worst performers; in fact, they ran the gamut of effectiveness. However, those who were hired to replace them were at least as effective as the average teacher in the school, meaning that turnover caused the overall effectiveness of the school’s teaching force to increase.

Moreover, there can be unintended consequences of asking all of a school’s teachers to reapply for their positions, as is frequently done under the turnaround model of the federal School Improvement Fund. Often teachers apply to other schools as a backup; Mr. Hansen recalled one high-performing teacher at a turnaround school who got a renewal offer from her school, but also another offer at a different school, which she took."Even though she was part of the 50 percent they wanted to keep, they lost her,” Mr. Hansen said. “Even when you are trying to fire or counsel out specific teachers, you are going to have high general teacher turnover in these schools and you will have [good] teachers leave anyway.”

On the other hand, teachers who remained at the low-performing schools throughout improvement also became better at boosting student achievement during that time. Experience and professional development raised the caliber of the teachers if they stayed long enough to take advantage of new learning opportunities.

“It doesn’t appear that we are losing the worst teachers and having them replaced with better ones,” Mr. Hansen said. “What does appear is that the teachers who stayed there all moved up a little bit. Overall, everyone does appear to be getting better.”

The full study will be published later this month by the National Center for Analyzing Longitudinal Data in Education Research, or CALDER, at AIR.

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2012 edition of Education Week as Researcher Analyzes Teacher Turnover’s Effects

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