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Can Data Help Districts Address Teacher Attrition?

teacher upbeat.jpg

As some districts struggle to reduce staff turnover, a new company is using data analytics to help schools respond to problems with employee attrition and engagement. 

Over the past two years, Upbeat has surveyed teachers and other school employees across the country to evaluate employee engagement and satisfaction. Based on survey results, Upbeat creates individualized toolkits to help administrators improve their employee retention rates.

See also: Special Report: Getting & Keeping Good Teachers

Upbeat isn't the first to address K-12 problems with data—in recent years, districts have used predictive analytics to improve student graduation rates and refine teacher hiring. Last year, the founder of Playworks started a nonprofit that uses data to help districts improve substitute teaching. And over the past decade, the New Teacher Center's Teaching and Learning Conditions Survey has assessed educators' perceptions of working conditions in smaller school districts. Like Upbeat, after conducting the survey the New Teacher Center develops action plans for districts to support retention.

As for Upbeat, the group doesn't just look at attrition—it also digs into teacher engagement. That's what caught the attention of Willie Watson, the assistant superintendent of human resources in the San Marcos district in Texas.

"We were impressed with how they look at not just turnover rate, but also why people stay with us," Watson said in an interview with Education Week Teacher.

From Data to District Change

After pulling together the data from the survey results, Upbeat staff members meet in person with school leaders to review strengths and challenges and develop specific action items for improvement.

"We don't want to just give people data, and then nothing ever comes of it," Henry Wellington, the founder and CEO of Upbeat, said in an interview. "We make sure that we sit with the district leadership team and each individual school leader, and we talk through the data with them and help them come up with next steps."

Upbeat also gives principals guidelines for reviewing data with their teachers and school leadership teams. For these review sessions, Upbeat often brings in former school leaders to help identify strengths and weaknesses. 

Wellington emphasizes the fact that the company was created for teachers, by teachers. "I taught middle school special education for four years, our researchers were teachers, and the person who designed the platform taught for seven years," he said.

Since 2016, 125 schools in eight states have participated in Upbeat surveys. This past May, about 1,000 San Marcos district employees—including teachers, administrators, and custodial staff members—participated in an Upbeat survey. While the survey showed several areas of strength in the district, two problem areas became apparent: supervisor-employee trust and employee appreciation. Teachers felt excluded from the administrative decision making process, and some expressed feeling as though they didn't know the principal well enough. In response to these problems, San Marcos administrators began strengthening the districtwide employee recognition program and planning informal get-togethers for teachers and principals.

The impact of the Upbeat survey hasn't been measured by outside researchers. But an internal case study found that for one Chicago charter school, teacher retention increased by 11 percent in the year after employees took the survey.

Mining survey data isn't a one-size-fits-all solution for curbing teacher attrition. Some districts have tried offering incentives like housing or child-care to entice more teachers to come to their district or stick around. But more education groups, including the Council of Chief State School Officers, are recognizing the power of using data to help increase teacher retention and stem shortages. 

Corrected: An earlier version of this story misstated the location and name of the San Marcos district. It is located in Texas and is the San Marcos Consolidated Independent School District.

Image by Getty

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