US teacher shortage: how to keep teachers from quitting

For the first time since 1990, educators and policymakers are concerned about teacher shortages. One answer: support current teachers.

Erica Yoon/The Roanoke Times/AP/File
Stephanie Lyon, a pre-school teacher at Small Steps Learning Academy, Roanoke, Va., reads to Taylor McCoy and Nylah Cooper. Educators and policymakers are looking for ways to address teaching shortages.

Everyone remembers a favorite teacher – someone who noticed potential the potential of students, challenged them, or inspired them to dream. With rising class sizes and high rates of teacher turnover, students may be finding it harder now to build such relationships. In response, a growing number of educators and policymakers are looking to address teacher shortages. 

Researchers at the Learning Policy Institute (LPI), a Palo Alto, Calif.-based think tank, concluded that most policymakers are tackling the wrong end of the problem: Don't just encourage people to join the profession, they say, find ways to keep them teaching once they get there.

Few teachers now work until retirement. Instead, many increasingly move to other professions, go into education administration, or stay home with their families.

In the United States, 8 percent of teachers leave the classroom each year – more than double the rate in Finland or Singapore. And those numbers go up for early-career teachers and those working in high-poverty areas.

The good news? Halving the rate of attrition – which would prevent 130,000 teaching jobs from opening up each year – could almost eliminate teacher shortages.

To help schools keep their teachers, LPI surveyed educators to identify the concerns that push teachers to leave. About 55 percent cited professional frustrations, including standardized testing, administrators, or the intrusions on teaching time. A further 18 percent cited financial reasons, including poor salaries, few benefits, and job insecurity.

“If we could prepare teachers well, mentor them when they come in, and give them decent working conditions, we would be very close to the 4 percent solution,” Linda Darling-Hammond, president and chief executive of LPI and co-author of the recent report, told NPR.

The report elaborates a number of ways to achieve those goals. Salaries competitive with other professions could make people more likely to choose – and stick with – teaching. A 2015 Department of Education study found that attrition among beginning teachers was at least 10 percentage points lower in states with starting salaries over $40,000. 

Strong support for beginning teachers can reduce a teacher’s odds of leaving the profession in the first year from 41 percent to 18 percent, according to the report. That involves a combination of efforts: mentoring programs, shared planning time, strong teacher networks and resources such as a teacher’s aide.

High school career pathway programs, which pay college tuition in exchange for a number of years in teaching, increase the number of qualified graduates available. That’s important to curb attrition, the report's authors say, because much of the turnover comes from under-qualified teachers, hired to fill “emergency” vacancies, who leave because they become overwhelmed by the demands of the job.

One success story is North Carolina, which has been implementing a number of these tactics since the 1980s. The state provides a range of resources for early-career teachers, including a mentoring program and a high school pathway program that now credentials 10 percent of the state’s teachers. The state also increased salaries for teachers more than a decade ago, bringing them into line with the national average. Those teachers who achieve National Board Certification can access a 12 percent pay increase.

The state's investments paid off: By retaining more and better-qualified teachers, North Carolina became the first southern state to exceed the national average in reading and math.

Teacher retention is about more than just keeping the number of teachers up, Matthew Springer, director of the National Center on Performance Initiatives at Vanderbilt University, tells The Christian Science Monitor. He explains that the shortage is two-pronged: a lack of highly effective teachers and a lack of teachers in high-need fields, such as science, special education, and math.

Professor Springer and his colleagues tested the effectiveness of a Tennessee state program that offered $5,000 bonuses to the most effective teachers in the lowest-rated schools. The catch: Teachers could only access the bonus if they returned to teach in a low-rated school the following year. They calculated that this financial reward made teachers who qualified for the bonus 20 percent more likely to remain in these schools than those who just missed the bonus cutoff. And keeping highly effective teachers – rather than hiring new ones of unknown quality – significantly improves the quality of instruction, Springer and others have found.

But it's not just about the paycheck, say the authors of the LPI report. The atmosphere created by administrators and teachers can outweigh the challenges posed by a lack of resources.

They quoted a Minneapolis teacher who had spent 20 years in public schools: “For the past decade, I’ve worked at a school where 97% of the children qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. I stay because the school climate is good for children and teachers alike. I stay because my principal is wonderful, supports us, does what’s best for the children, and because I trust her. I stay because my colleagues are gifted teachers and good company, and because I continually learn from them.”

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