Don’t slam the desk on the way out. If fewer teachers quit, the shortage would end

August 15, 2017
Big room with tables and people talking

Job seekers meet and greet recruiters during a July 2016 job fair at La Escuelita in Oakland.

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Teachers in America are dropping out, leaving the profession at twice the rate of teachers in high-achieving school systems like those in Finland and Ontario, Canada. And they’re departing in large part because their principals do not support them, according to a report released Tuesday.

But if schools could convince half of those who leave to stay, the teacher shortage that puts thousands of under-qualified emergency replacements in classrooms each year “could be virtually eliminated,” according to the report from the Learning Policy Institute, a Palo Alto research group.

As California legislators work to entice teachers into the field through housing subsidies and loan-forgiveness programs, the report argues that the rush of teachers out of the profession is perhaps the more dominant driver of a national shortage of teachers, a shortfall most acute in the fields of special education, science, math and English language development.

About 90 percent of teacher vacancies nationwide are created by teachers leaving the profession, the report states. Fewer than one-third of those who leave are retiring, while two-thirds are beginning or mid-career teachers who are walking away from the job for reasons other than retirement.

Most often, they say they are leaving because of dissatisfaction with working conditions, according to the report, which analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Education’s 2012 National Center for Education Statistics’ Schools and Staffing Survey and its 2013 Teacher Follow Up Survey. “Teaching is a tough job and if you don’t feel you have the administrative support, both tangible and intangible — feeling that somebody’s got your back and your voice is heard — it’s not easy,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute and co-author of the report. California schools, which are among the lowest funded in the U.S., also function with fewer tangible administrative supports, such as librarians, counselors or additional administrators who are available to step in if “there’s a kid in need of acute support,” Darling-Hammond said.

About 8 percent of U.S. teachers leave teaching annually, compared to 3 or 4 percent of teachers in Finland and Ontario, the report says. Another 8 percent of U.S. teachers each year switch schools. The 16 percent annual churn is tough on students, who may be in a classroom with an under-qualified replacement, and on the rhythm of school life. “Teachers are the No. 1 in-school influence on student achievement,” said a press release about the study.

Poor support from administrators is the most powerfully predictive reason teachers quit the field or change schools — more predictive than any other workplace issue, including teachers’ feelings about student behavior, support from colleagues, paperwork duties, school resources, classroom control or influence over school operations, the report says.

“School professional workplace cultures are very complex and some are very set in their ways,” said Karen Hunter Quartz, director of research at the UCLA Community School Initiative, a partnership between UCLA and the Los Angeles Unified School District. She added, “The most effective administrators are those who value distributed leadership, who are collaborative, who recognize lead teachers, and who are willing to take the time it requires to develop those more democratic structures, rather than the command-and-control that often happens in school.”

Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Association, said the findings were “absolutely consistent” with his own experience as a teacher and with research reports compiled by the union. “It’s basic stuff — you treat people with respect, give them a voice and treat them like professionals,” he said. He added, “To be fair, principals have a hard job and it’s about getting the right support and development for them … Both teachers and administrators would stay longer if they felt supported.”

Another factor that contributes to teachers leaving the field is how well they were prepared for the job, the report found. Teachers who take a non-standard route to a credential, which could include Teach for America or another alternative credentialing program, are 25 percent more likely to leave their school than other teachers, the report says. Those alternative paths typically require considerably less coursework and fewer hours of student teaching than a credentialing program at a California State University campus, for example.

Turnover rates are 70 percent higher for teachers in schools serving the largest concentrations of students of color and 50 percent higher for teachers in Title I schools, which serve more low-income students. “We haven’t done nearly enough in our society both to reduce childhood poverty and to create environments that are healthy for children, including increasing resources for schools,” Darling-Hammond said.

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