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Report: As Teacher Demographics Change, Districts Must Prioritize Retention

By guest blogger Alyssa Morones

It's been recently documented that the K-12 teacher workforce is greener than ever: In 2007-08, the amount of experience that the most teachers reported having was just one year.

Now, a new report takes a look at what that phenomenon means for the teaching profession as a whole. In sum, districts and programs that prepare teachers will need to seriously rethink how they retain and cultivate these new teachers, concludes the report, issued today by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Although much of the research in the report isn't new, it is knit together to provide an important look at the current state of teacher attrition and retention.

According to the report, the high rate of teacher turnover is responsible for a saturation of beginner teachers in the field. Between 1988 and 2008, annual teacher attrition increased 41 percent.

Nearly one third of teachers exit the field within the first three years—a fraction that's even larger in urban school systems, where more than two thirds of teachers in those schools leave within 5 years. The attrition rate in high poverty schools is 50 percent greater than it is in other schools. Teachers of color leave at much higher rates than white teachers, a problem that's notable in light of schools' struggles to recruit more minority teachers.

Such turnover is costly. According to one study from the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future cited in the report, teacher attrition costs school districts more than $7 billion to recruit and induct new teachers. Finally, because lower-income urban schools have a particularly hard time with teacher retention, their students on average receive weaker instruction because beginner teachers tend to be less effective than experienced ones.

These demographic changes are coupled with what appear to be a shift in teachers' thoughts on teaching as a long-term profession.

A national survey of teachers found that over half planned to leave the profession; new teachers who entered the profession through non-traditional routes, including Teach For America, were even more likely to express this outlook.

This isn't the only shift taking place: New teachers also aren't entering into the same teaching climate as their predecessors. It's now "one of stricter accountability, a related focus on standardized testing and, in the wake of the recent recession, severe budget cuts," the report notes.

So what does all this mean for the places in which teachers work?  For one, it stands to have profound effects on the culture of the workplace, given the steep learning curve of beginning teachers. The high rate of turnover "erodes collegiality, along with trust among teachers," reads the report, "and cuts into valuable institutional knowledge about procedures, curriculum, and culture."

The report points to a lack of administrative and professional support as a main reason for the high rate of turnover in the teaching profession.

"The biggest reason teachers leave is because they are working in a dysfunctional structure," Jesse Solomon, executive director of the non-profit BPE, told the report's author.

Districts should keep their teacher turnover in-check, according to the report, and strategize ways to keep teachers. The report emphasizes that schools should recognize new teachers' unique needs and provide them with targeted support and training, especially because new teachers have such a steep learning curve. "Comprehensive induction," as the report refers to it, includes quality mentoring, common planning time, and standards-based evaluation.

Another tool to managing turnover is to make careful hiring decisions—to put the right people in the right schools. Late hiring is one barrier to this, especially in low-income districts that have uncertain budgets and student enrollment. Other reasons for late hiring include poor data systems and bureaucratic barriers.

The report includes case studies of schools working to train and retain their teachers. Though a costly endeavor, it's usually one that pays off because districts save on replacement costs and spend less on remediation, the report concludes

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