Addressing teacher turnover in high-poverty, high-minority urban schools

Teacher turnover in high-poverty, high-minority urban schools can top 20 percent annually. Among new teachers, as many as half walk away from the profession in their first five years. This is unacceptable. Urban education cannot hope to close the achievement gap with such turnover. But there is hope: Research shows that providing the right support makes a huge difference in teacher retention.  

So what is the magical formula for easing teacher turnover? Higher salaries won’t hurt, but it’s not all about the money. Working conditions count for a lot. Often cited in teacher surveys are the importance of effective school leadership, professional support, and a culture of high expectations.

Urban school leaders believe they understand the challenges their teachers face. Yet, the working conditions for teachers in high-poverty schools can be tougher than you think—and play a huge role in staff attrition. So suggests “Teacher Recruitment, Induction, and Retention,” a report by Education Northwest—a regional research group.

Too often, the report says, teachers “are typically underprepared and not supported as they confront lower levels of resources, poorer working conditions, and the stresses of working with students and families who have a wide range of needs. Beginning teachers are particularly vulnerable because they are more likely to be assigned low-performing students.”

Budget factors play a role in creating these situations. When money is tight, professional development often is curtailed, and targeted help for new teachers falls by the wayside. Overworked administrators have no time to provide the support they know is needed.

Yet, ultimately, the problem is institutional. When turnover is high, a district can end up focusing more on hiring bodies than supporting existing talent, reports “On the Path to Equity: Improving the Effectiveness of Beginning Teachers,” a report by the Alliance for Excellent Education.  

“Short-term, replacement strategies,” the report says, “treat teachers like interchangeable, expendable parts rather than as young professionals meriting sustained investments in their development as part of a community of expert, experienced teachers.”

None of this should come as a complete surprise to school leaders. But it is fair warning: If you are unhappy with the turnover of your teachers, then the reasons for your problem—and the solutions to it—aren’t a mystery.

Research Says:

Focus on the needs of new teachers. A study of California schools’ that worked to retain teachers found that “high-quality induction and mentoring programs reduced attrition by 26 percent in just two years.” One-on-one mentoring, common planning time, and ongoing support from school leaders are key retention strategies.

School culture plays a role in retention. A school climate that sets high expectations for student learning—and where educators believe all students can learn—raises the likelihood that teachers will stay in their school.

Focus training on practical skills. New teachers who have training with a practical impact on classroom learning—such as how to select and use instructional materials, how to plan classroom lessons, or how to manage student behavior—are half as likely to leave the profession.

Provide opportunities for leadership. Invite teachers to play a role in school decision making, serve as a master teacher or mentor, lead an advisory group, help write curricula, or lead professional development efforts.

Create learning communities to empower teachers. Where teachers meet regularly to focus on student learning, teacher retention rates are higher. “On the Path to Equity” reports that “teachers are likely to stay in schools where they view their colleagues as partners with them in the work of improving the whole school and the conditions are well-suited for them to have the potential to be effective.”

Learn the issues that negatively impact teachers. Surveys indicate that teachers are discouraged from staying in teaching by excessive workloads, disruptive student behavior, poor leadership, and a lack of response to the challenges facing them. To fix an issue, you must know it exists—and how severe the problem. Teacher surveys and regular principal-teacher communication are important communication tools.

Teachers need effective leaders. Principals who are good instructional leaders, monitor the performance and challenges of teachers, and respond meaningfully to teachers with a problem are valued by teachers. Research shows that strong leaders are a significant factor in a teacher’s decision to stay in a school.



On the Path to Equity: Improving the Effectiveness of Beginning Teachers, Alliance for Excellent Education

Eight Questions on Teacher Recruitment and Retention: What Does the Research Say?, Education Commission of the States

Teacher Recruitment, Induction, and Retention, Education Northwest 

Explaining Teacher Turnover—School Cohesion and Intrinsic Motivation in Los Angeles, University of California-Berkeley, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Los Angeles Unified School District 

Keeping Irreplaceables in D.C. Public Schools: Lessons in Smart Teacher Retention, TNTP (The New Teacher Project)

The Decade-Plus Teaching Career: How to Retain Effective Teachers Through Teacher Leadership, Teach+Plus

7 Steps for a Balanced Recruitment AND Retention Strategy, Education Week 

The Role of Principals in Addressing Teacher Shortages, Learning Policy Institute 


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