Special Report
Recruitment & Retention

Working Conditions Trump Pay

When it comes to retaining teachers, studies suggest that the circumstances of their jobs may matter even more than their salaries.
By Debra Viadero — January 03, 2008 9 min read
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As a high-profile former teacher-of-the-year in his part of the state, North Carolina middle school teacher William Ferriter sometimes gets flak for continuing to work in a relatively affluent, high-performing school rather than one plagued by poverty and academic problems.

It’s not that he isn’t open to the idea, says Ferriter, who is an education activist and blogger as well as a veteran teacher. He once taught in a low-performing, high-poverty school, and he would do it again if the working conditions were right. That is, if he could find a school where teachers had the administrative support, the resources, and the freedom they needed to succeed.

“It’s difficult to be able to walk into a class knowing the working conditions that I need to be successful with a high-need population aren’t there,” he says. After all, why set himself up for failure?

Ferriter’s view is not unique. Recent studies are beginning to suggest that working conditions are a key to attracting and retaining teachers—perhaps even more than financial incentives.

“Teachers today know they have many more options,” says Susan Moore Johnson, an education professor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education. “Often, they’ve chosen teaching because it means more [to them] and they want to work with young people. If conditions preclude their success in these classrooms, they’re much more likely to leave than their predecessors.”

Educators and the people who study them have long known that American teachers have to deal with an unusual set of working conditions.

On the one hand, they get job security, generally good health benefits, summers off, and a chance to do work that is meaningful to them.

On the other, they may feel underpaid and isolated from colleagues. They often lack adequate time to prepare lessons or bone up on needed skills. Opportunities to advance their careers may be limited. And, unlike their counterparts in Japan, they don’t get offices where they can make doctors’ appointments or other personal phone calls.

More Than Money

The issue of working conditions and the role such conditions play in recruitment and retention has gotten new attention, though, in the wake of studies in the late 1990s that quantified the dramatic impact that a single good teacher can make on students’ learning trajectories.

While no expert has yet hit on the definitive formula for identifying which teachers are “highly qualified,” researchers have determined that, when it comes to experienced teachers or those who are certified in the subjects they teach, the supply is inequitably distributed among schools. High-poverty schools in central cities or rural areas tend to have fewer such teachers—and dramatically higher rates of teacher turnover—than do more affluent, suburban schools.

With the aim of correcting those imbalances, the federal No Child Left Behind Act mandates that schools staff all core academic classes with teachers who have bachelor’s degrees and teaching licenses and who can demonstrate mastery in the subjects they teach, usually by passing a state exam or completing college coursework in those areas.

Where Do Faculty Feel Influential?

Teachers feel they have the most control over practices in their own classrooms, such as choosing how to teach, grade, and discipline their students. But beyond the classroom walls, they see their sphere of influence as considerably smaller.

SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2008. Analysis of data from the Schools and Staffing Survey, 2003-04, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education.

As Congress geared up last year for renewal of the 6-year-old law, some key lawmakers hoped to strengthen that provision and add financial incentives for teachers who boosted students’ test scores or agreed to teach in troubled, high-poverty schools.

But independent research suggests that signing bonuses and pay raises, while helpful, won’t solve the problem.

In studies tracing the career paths of 50 Massachusetts teachers who entered the classroom in 1999, Johnson and her Harvard graduate students found that teachers who left the job after a year or two most often cited factors that all arguably fall under the umbrella of working conditions. They include problems with administrators, sink-or-swim courseloads, student-discipline issues, and inadequate resources.

“Pay was not foremost among their concerns,” Johnson says.

Stanford University researcher Eric A. Hanushek and his colleagues noted a similar pattern in analyzing the career moves made by 375,000 Texas primary school teachers between 1993 and 1996. They found that teachers systematically moved to schools with fewer minority students, fewer poor students, and higher test scores—for about the same pay, on average, as the teachers in the schools they left behind.

“What we take away from this is that there are many other things besides salaries that motivate teachers,” says Hanushek, an economist at the Hoover Institution, a think tank based at Stanford. “I’m reluctant to believe that teachers, on average, are really racist. I think it’s much more likely to be the general set of working conditions.”

Susanna Loeb and her colleagues documented a similar phenomenon in tracking a cohort of teachers in New York City who entered the profession during the 2004-05 school year.

Asked that year why they chose their schools, the teachers talked primarily about the schools’ proximity to where they lived, their reputations, and the schools’ hiring practices, among other factors. Teachers were less concerned about whether the schools’ administrators were effective or supportive leaders.

A year later, though, when the researchers surveyed the teachers who had left their original schools, respondents told a different story.

“Once they’re there and you actually ask why they leave, administrative support really shows up quite clearly,” says Loeb, an associate professor of education at Stanford and the director of its Institute for Research on Education Policy and Practice. Her research findings had not yet been published as of last fall.

Which Conditions?

The bottom line, says Barnett Berry, the president of the Center for Teaching Quality, is that a pay increase is a “necessary, but not sufficient, condition for attracting teachers to high-need schools.”

Highlighting the importance of working conditions in initiatives to foster a high-quality teaching force has been a central mission for the center, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization based in Hillsborough, N.C. Since 2002, the center has been surveying teachers in seven states about the climate in their schools, in an effort to build a database on the subject and focus policymakers’ attention on the issue.

Hard to pinpoint, though, are exactly which conditions matter most to teachers.

“Are you referring to dirty bathrooms? Decrepit buildings?” asks Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington- based policy and advocacy group. “I think the mistake that we make when talking about working conditions is that it’s such a general term.”

In her view, leadership is the key issue when it comes to working conditions. She rejects the idea that teachers leave their jobs just because a school has a high number of low-income children.

Effective and supportive leadership also crops up consistently as the single most important issue in the working-conditions surveys that Berry’s center has helped conduct in Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, and South Carolina.

“Good teachers will not work for bad principals,” Berry says. And good principals will see to it that school restrooms are clean and student-discipline policies are enforced.

His center’s surveys—involving more than 150,000 teachers so far—show that teachers also value time to prepare and collaborate with other teachers, having a say in what gets taught and how, having opportunities for professional development, and adequate facilities and resources.

Such factors also emerge in the Teacher Follow-up Survey, a nationally representative study the U.S. Department of Education conducts every four years to supplement the data it collects though its Schools and Staffing Survey.

“I want to be able to have the opportunity to make instructional decisions based on my knowledge of the students in the classroom and where we are,” says Ferriter, the North Carolina middle school teacher, who has earned certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. “It would be hard to walk into a setting where I felt I didn’t have any control over the instruction that goes on.”

For Ferriter, that’s where troubled, high-poverty schools come up short.

Under increasing pressure to meet student-achievement targets, such schools are more likely than their higher-performing, more affluent counterparts to exert heavy-handed control over what goes on in classrooms, he says.

“That scares me as an accomplished teacher,” adds Ferriter, who works closely with the Center for Teaching Quality as part of its teacher-leaders network and its workplace-conditions initiative.

Valuing Colleagues

Other studies of teachers, such as those certified by the national board, suggest that another key to high-quality working conditions is collegiality—the opportunity to work with a group of motivated colleagues, rather than toil in isolation.

For instance, at Salem Middle School in Apex, N.C., where Ferriter has taught social studies and language arts for four years, the 6th grade teaching team took the initiative to design a nontraditional grading system that breaks assignments into component tasks and assigns grades accordingly. The idea is to give parents a better idea of their children’s strengths and weaknesses.

In fact, North Carolina was the first among a handful of states to begin surveying teachers about workplace conditions in their schools. Gov. Michael F. Easley, a Democrat, turned up the spotlight on the surveys—the results of which are now posted online—by singling out 10 “Real Deal” schools where conditions had improved because administrators had taken positive steps to respond to the feedback they got through earlier surveys. Salem Middle School was one of them.

North Carolina’s 2006 school environment study, the most recent one, also showed that students tended to have higher academic achievement in schools that scored high on certain measures of climate. Those included safety, an atmosphere of trust, a faculty that believed all children could learn, a clearly communicated vision, and, to a lesser degree, whether teachers had influence over the selection of instructional techniques and materials.

“All of these things have to do with the way that places are managed and operated and run,” says Richard M. Ingersoll, a University of Pennsylvania researcher who has studied teacher attrition extensively. “I’ve really ascertained that if we improved these kinds of things, we could dramatically reduce turnover.”

For Lori Nazareno, another nationally certified teacher, a chance to advance her career and to have a say in improving instruction are what drew her to the high-poverty school where she teaches in Denver.

After moving to the Denver area from Miami in 2006, she had a choice of working in elementary schools from four or five districts, including some closer to her home and some with higher-performing student populations. She chose the 480-student Barnum Elementary School on Denver’s west side because she could teach in the morning and coach her colleagues in the afternoon as a math-science facilitator.

Nazareno also liked the district’s nationally watched program of performance-based pay, which rewards teachers for raising student achievement, adding to their own skills, and teaching where they are needed.

“There’s a system in place that’s able to take advantage of having accomplished teachers on staff,” the 20-year veteran teacher says. “This is like teacher heaven for me.”

In March 2024, Education Week announced the end of the Quality Counts report after 25 years of serving as a comprehensive K-12 education scorecard. In response to new challenges and a shifting landscape, we are refocusing our efforts on research and analysis to better serve the K-12 community. For more information, please go here for the full context or learn more about the EdWeek Research Center.

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