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The Key to Keeping Minority Teachers When the Rest of the Staff Is White

Support from the principal is important for retention of all teachers—but for minority teachers working in schools where few other teachers look like them, it appears to be critical.

That's the upshot of a new study from economics professors Steven Bednar and Dora Gicheva, which was recently published in the journal Education Finance and Policy

"We're interested in this because there are theories from sociology that say that workers are happier when they're part of a group of other workers that are similar to them," said Bednar, an assistant professor of economics at Elon University. The study showed that "administrators can help bridge this gap of being part of a different group of teachers."

The researchers looked at data from four cycles of the federal Schools and Staffing Survey. (The most recent results from the redesign of that survey, not included in this study, were released earlier this week.) Bednar and Gicheva, an assistant professor in the department of economics at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, focused on whether teachers stayed at their schools or left. They divided teachers into two groups: those in "high-minority" schools, where 15 percent or more teachers were minorities, and those in "low-minority" schools, where 10 percent or fewer teachers were minorities. 

In the survey, teachers were asked to rate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the following statements regarding administrative support: 

  • The school administration's behavior toward the staff is supportive and encouraging.
  • My principal enforces school rules for student conduct and backs me up when I need it.
  • The principal knows what kind of school he or she wants and has communicated it to the staff.
  • In this school, staff members are recognized for a job well done.

"Administrative support is associated with lower mobility for all groups," the report says, "but matters the most for minority teachers at schools with relatively few other non-white teachers."

The link was more pronounced for novice teachers in low-minority schools than for experienced ones. "Our idea is that when you're a new teacher, that's when you're forming these social networks within a school," Bednar said. "If you've been a teacher for 15 years, the administration probably plays a smaller role because you're more established."

And the loss of a minority teacher in a low-minority school can have quite an impact: There tends to be more minority students per minority teacher in these schools, the study shows. 

The study has several limitations, Bednar acknowledged. The data are self-reported, so they only capture perceived, rather than actual, administrative support. And the survey didn't ask specifically how administrators provided that support, "which would be really helpful for policy," he said.  

The study also doesn't say anything about the teachers' effectiveness—i.e., whether it's better for students academically if they stay. However, prior research has shown that there are positive effects on achievement, attendance, and motivation when students have teachers who are demographically similar to themselves. 

Overall, though, "the results indicate that workplace support is essential in maintaining or growing minority representation in relatively less-diverse organizations," the study says. 


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