Recruitment & Retention

Top Educators Lament Poor Teacher-Retention Efforts

By Ross Brenneman — March 08, 2016 5 min read
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It’s hot. The four finalists for 2016 National Teacher of the Year have been in a conference room in the headquarters of the Council of Chief State School Officers here on the last day of February, and the thermostat has not cooperated. The candidates have gone through the wringer, and this group interview isn’t even the last thing on the docket.

The finalists are here in part to meet the officials who ultimately decide which one gets to be National Teacher of the Year, with the CCSSO acting as coordinator.

After all of the travel, though—the monuments, the press, the policy gurus—there’s still energy to talk about a conversation topic they’ve found lacking today: teacher retention, especially for educators of color.

“In my district we have a targeted recruiting effort for minority teachers—black and Latino specifically—because that is what our demographics look like in my district. And it’s just been such a challenge to attract that population, to retain that population,” says Jahana Hayes, a high school social studies teacher from Waterbury, Conn.

Here beside Hayes are Nate Bowling, from Tacoma, Wash.; Daniel Jocz, from Los Angeles; and Shawn Sheehan, from Norman, Okla. All of them teach high school social studies except for Sheehan, who teaches high school math.

“If you want to recruit and retain teachers of color, you have to make schools a place where students of color feel comfortable and feel like they’re successful,” Bowling adds, saying there are a whole host of factors why students of color might have a less-than-positive school experience. “If you were miserable some place, why would you go back to make things miserable for yourself?”

Bowling is ready for this conversation. In the weeks since the CCSSO announced the names of the teacher of the year finalists, he published an essay called “The Conversation I’m Tired of Not Having” in which he offers a scathing indictment of systemic inequity in U.S. schools:

As a nation, we're nibbling around the edges with accountability measures and other reforms, but we're ignoring the immutable core issue: much of white and wealthy America is perfectly happy with segregated schools and inequity in funding. We have the schools we have, because people who can afford better get better. And sadly, people who can't afford better just get less—less experienced teachers, inadequate funding, and inferior facilities."

Bowling says that his essay was “a lot of me thinking aloud.” He wants a focus on finding effective educators and figuring out how to keep them, rather than on obsessing over the worst educators. “We’re not paying enough attention to who inspires. ... For me, it’s not that I’m disengaging from the policy argument, but the quality of the educator in the classroom is more important than whatever standard is being used, whatever curriculum is being used.”

Federal data point to a diminishing number of black teachers throughout the country, and lower retention rates than for white teachers. At least one out of every five new teachers (if not more) will leave the profession within five years. Efforts to curb teacher attrition may be non-existent in many districts—the teachers here say their districts didn’t offer them much attention, if any at all.

“I’ve had colleagues that have just left the profession and no one asked them why, and they were some of our most effective educators,” Jocz says. “There is no effort in place—maybe at a local school site where you have rock-star administration—there’s nothing to retain talent, to develop talent, to recognize talent, on any scale that I’ve seen in public high schools or just schools in general in Los Angeles.”

Bowling says that the pull of high administrative salaries has lured too many teachers away. Perhaps, he said, those teachers would have stayed if they could make more money in their classroom position.

“How do you do that? You have to fund it with taxes. Full stop. Right?” Bowling said. “How do you do that? You create leadership roles where teachers can lead from the classroom. But doing that means you need more FTE [full-time equivalents]. How do you get more FTE? You have to raise taxes. So that’s dead.”

He would know. His state has been engulfed in legislative wrangling over the budget, furthered by a state supreme court ruling, McCleary v. State of Washington, that held Washington had failed to meet its constitutional obligations toward education funding. And South Dakota offers another example of how long it can take to increase teacher salary through tax changes.

Hayes’ state, Connecticut, actually has a system for teacher induction, but it’s one of only four states in the country to have a state-funded, multi-year induction program, along with Delaware, Hawaii, and Iowa. That’s according to a new report released this month by the New Teacher Center, an organization that consults on teacher-induction programs.

In a Washington panel discussion timed to coincide with that report’s release on March 1, education experts mused about why states had paid so little attention toward efforts to keep teachers. Former Kentucky education commissioner Terry Holliday said that recent federal money spent on teacher evaluation, funded primarily through Race to the Top, could have been better spent elsewhere.

“Just think if we’d spent all that money on induction programs and effectiveness programs what we would have today, and elevated teacher voice, and elevated the continuum of professional development, and linked and aligned preservice all the way through teacher-leadership positions,” Holliday said.

Within Hayes’ district, she and colleagues worked together to set up a new retention program last year for teachers of color, due to worries about that group’s low retention rate. Teachers meet once a month with a retired superintendent to go over areas where they say they need more assistance.

“This group of teachers said ‘I don’t feel supported,’ and what we did in response to that is said, ‘Let’s create a network of support.’ And that doesn’t really happen as often as it needs to happen,” Hayes says.

“Oftentimes teachers, our voice is lifted and everyone is saying the same thing, and then 10 years later—through policy or legislation—you’re answering that challenge, but we’ve moved on to something else,” she adds.

Image, left to right: National Teacher of the Year candidates Nathan Gibbs-Bowling, Jahana Hayes, Daniel Jocz, and Shawn Sheehan. Images via the CCSSO.

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