Training, Pay Incentives Help Curb High School Teacher Turnover

Mentoring programs and supportive leadership led to higher teacher retention at some school districts.

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One study shows nearly 50 percent of new teachers leave the field within five years.
One study shows nearly 50 percent of new teachers leave the field within five years.

Recruiting and retaining top teaching talent is a struggle for many high schools. More than 30 percent of new educators quit teaching after three years, and nearly half leave before hitting the five-year mark, according the nonprofit National Commission on Teaching and America's Future.

Even if teachers don't leave the classroom entirely, few stick around at schools with poor working conditions, such as no support from leadership, unmanageable class sizes, low wages, and a lack of respect, the National Education Association said in a 2008 newsletter.

The result is tens of thousands of dollars spent by districts every year to recruit, hire, and train new teachers to replace those that left—funds that could be spent to improve school facilities, increase salaries, and invest in new programs, according to NCTAF.

But some districts are keeping teachers on board—and money in the budget—by investing in mentoring programs for new teachers, rewarding high-performing educators, and transforming the culture of their schools.

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Turnover rates at Somerset Independent School District and Southside Independent School District, both in Texas, dropped from 27 and 25 percent, respectively, in 2007, to 11 and 10 percent in 2011, according to the San Antonio Express-News. The improvement in teacher retention corresponded with changes in the district's leadership, and in turn, its culture, the Express-News reported.

"The districts went from making headlines for trustee infighting to selecting superintendents who managed to win mostly unanimous board votes for their plans," the article stated, quoting a former superintendent who said, "Over a period of time, a dysfunctional board — and the decisions they make — will lead to a dysfunctional school district."

[Find out why student feedback is important for teachers.]

While a sharp drop in teacher turnover rates looks good on paper, it may not give a full picture, says Timothy Daly, president of TNTP, a national education nonprofit. If schools are holding on to more low-performing teachers in order to boost retention rates, high-performing teachers will eventually jump ship, he says.

"[Teachers] want rigor," Daly says. "They don't want to teach down the hall from someone who isn't pulling [his or her] weight … and they don't want to get students, year after year, who are half a grade level behind."

Getting rid of low-performing teachers is one step District of Columbia Public Schools took to retain what TNTP deems "irreplaceable" teachers—the top 20 percent—according to a report released by the nonprofit earlier this month.

During the 2010-2011 school year, the district shed 55 percent of its lowest-performing teachers, but nearly 90 percent of the district's "irreplaceable" educators stayed on, the report states.

The district also implemented more rigorous standards for teacher performance and added salary incentives for its most effective teachers, the study notes. While those changes have helped retain top talent, few of those teachers work in the neediest schools—where conditions are poor, but need is high for these "irreplaceable" teachers.

"Strategic policy changes can help districts break the cycle of negligent teacher retention," the TNTP report says. But "no set of policies can outweigh teachers' daily experiences in their schools."

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