School management linked to teacher turnover

School management linked to teacher turnover

(N.Y.) The high rate of teacher turnover in most schools serving low-income neighborhoods has generally been perceived as the result of the problems students from low-income families bring to class.

But an examination of six new studies focused on teacher employment suggests it is poor working conditions at those schools–rather than the students themselves–that rank as the biggest factor when teachers decide to move on.

“The poor working conditions common in America’s neediest schools explain away most, if not all, of the relationship between student characteristics and teacher attrition,” said Nicole S. Simon and Susan Moore Johnson in a report released Tuesday by the Teachers College Record, a publication of Columbia University.

“This is important because, unlike demographic characteristics of students, working conditions can be addressed,” the researchers said. “Policy makers and practitioners have many options for improving aspects of the school environment, and, although more research can inform this work, much is already known about what matters to teachers as they are deciding whether to continue teaching in their schools.”

About 500,000 of the nation’s 3.5 million teachers leave their schools each year. Of these, an estimated 40 percent transfer to another school while the rest leave the profession. The numbers are troubling–not just because of the impact they have on public education overall, but also because the rate of attrition is much higher than most “high-status, high-paying profession,” the Columbia report said.

Turnover is especially high in neighborhoods serving low-income families, where it can run as much as 50 percent higher than wealthier schools. According to a 2004 study, high-poverty schools in urban centers lose on average 20 percent of their faculty either to other schools or other professions.

Among middle school teachers in New York City, 66 percent leave within five years.

The research is also clear that schools having to keep up with constant turnover are less effective in promoting student performance. One big reason is that high-turnover schools must rely disproportionately on novice teachers, which are typically also less effective.

The cycle of outgoing and incoming teachers has also been shown to hurt student test scores as well as damaging a school’s relationship with the surrounding community and its parents.

Until now, the prevailing wisdom was that teachers left the low-income schools to get away from the students. This theory is based on a 2004 study that looked at turnover in Texas public schools, which found salary and student body demographics were the two most influential components.

The authors of the 2004 study said that “when teachers transfer, they “seek out schools with fewer academically and economically disadvantaged students.” To offset this trend, they said, the average salary differential required to keep the teachers from leaving would range from 25 percent to 40 percent above current pay rates.

More recent research, however, has looked closer at working conditions and the problems within the school organization itself.

The picture that begins to emerge is that “organizational factors pertaining to administrative support, teacher input in decision-making, salary, and aspects of school culture (especially student discipline) were associated with higher rates of turnover,” the Columbia paper reported.

Although teachers’ personal circumstances influenced their career decisions, it was their “sense of success” with their own students that most influenced their decision about whether to stay in their school, move to a different school, or leave teaching altogether, according to the report.

Overall, the teachers said that it was the environment of their school that made success likely—or unlikely. New teachers in schools that were organized to support them through collegial interaction, opportunities for growth, appropriate assignments, adequate resources, and schoolwide structures supporting student learning were more likely to stay in those schools and in teaching than were the new teachers working at schools that lacked such supports.