4 Ways to Find (and Keep) the Best Teachers

When it comes to school reform, we often think of getting rid of bad teachers. However, an issue that is possibly more pressing is hiring, training the best teachers. School districts continuously engage in the complementary processes of recruiting and retaining teachers. The strain on school budgets impacts the ability of school districts to hire and sometimes to retain high quality teachers. There are steps that every school and district can take, however, to strengthen its staff no matter what the financial situation. We will soon discuss a few ways to do this, but first, let’s look at why teachers leave their profession.

Why do teachers give up?

The highest proportion of new teachers in any given year is female, with White women accounting for higher numbers than women in ethnic minority groups. There is evidence, however, that in the early 1990s the number of new minority educators increased. No matter what their gender or ethnicity, teachers show a similar trend in high turnover and drop-out rates, both in their early years of teaching and when nearing retirement, producing a pattern related to age or experience.

Higher attrition rates have been noted in Whites and females in the fields of science and mathematics, and in those who have higher measured academic ability. Location of teaching position also impacts mobility and attrition rates. Most studies show that suburban and rural school districts have lower attrition rates than urban districts. Public schools, on average, actually have higher teacher retention rates than private schools.

Teachers are looking for increased salaries, greater rewards, and improved working conditions. Educators tend to transfer to teaching or even non-teaching positions that meet desired criteria. These findings suggest teacher recruitment and retention is dependent on the desirability of the teaching profession in relation to other opportunities. The inherent appeal of teaching depends on “total compensation” which compares the total reward from teaching, both extrinsic and intrinsic, with possible rewards determined through other activities.

Schools with high percentages of minority students and urban schools are harder to staff, and teachers tend to leave these schools when more attractive opportunities become available. Certain factors, which can apparently be influenced by policy change, may affect individuals’ decisions to enter teaching, as well as teachers’ decisions to transfer within or leave the profession.

Now, with all that explained, let’s look at four ways to find and keep the best teachers in schools in an era when teacher turnover is high:

  1. Pay more, and pay ethically. This is pretty simple. Not surprisingly, higher salaries are associated with lower teacher attrition, while dissatisfaction with salary is associated with higher attrition and a waning commitment to teaching.

The traditional system, whereby teachers are paid based solely on their years of experience and level of education, has caused many critics to claim that it does not promote good teaching, or is not as fair as other systems that pay based on performance, ability in certain skills, or willingness to teach in areas of high need. On the other hand, proponents of the traditional system argue that teachers’ experience and education are crucial indicators of their performance, and that because of its open and fair assessment it is the only logical choice. To reach an optimum balance, educators and policymakers have created numerous methods for revising how teachers are compensated, each seeking to adjust teacher incentives differently.

As the scientific evidence on these methods’ effectiveness is extremely limited, it is difficult to choose among them. Historically, implementing any pay reform, let alone directing a critical study of one, has been a demanding issue. A number of ambitious and interesting reforms have folded, often within a few years, under opposing political pressure or from fiscal restrictions. Attempts to study the few surviving reforms have yielded little usable data to date.

  1. Create a support system for new teachers. Lower turnover rates among beginning teachers are found in schools with induction and mentoring programs, and particularly those related to collegial support. Teachers given greater autonomy and administrative support show lower rates of attrition and migration. Aside from higher salaries, better working conditions and intrinsic rewards are the most important factors for teachers.
  2. Recruit teacher candidates from alternative teacher education programs as well as traditional teacher training programs. Literature on the influence of preservice policies on teacher recruitment and retention are limited, however there are two important points that should command attention of school districts. One of the recommendations of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future in its report, What Matters Most: Teaching for America’s Future was that teachers be licensed based on demonstration of knowledge and skills.

This edict led states and teacher education programs to require teachers to pass a battery of tests before they exited teacher education programs and/or before they were licensed by states. These actions resulted in a reduction of the number of minority students entering and completing teacher education programs. Therefore school districts seeking more diverse teaching staffs will see a limited number of minority candidates available for recruitment.

A second pre-service teacher policy districts should look at is the difference between candidates completing traditional teacher education programs and those completing alternative route programs. Teacher candidates completing alternative route teacher education programs tend to be older and more diverse. Further, they tend to have higher retention rates than candidates completing traditional programs. Recruiting teacher candidates from these programs could address both the needs for more diverse teaching staffs and the desire to retain good teachers.

  1. Districts: pay attention to what teachers want.

Districts wanting to retain their best teachers should strongly consider what matters to teachers who remain in their teaching positions. Mentoring and induction programs tend to matter to in-service teaches, as does class size, autonomy, and administrative support. It is also interesting to note that state accountability practices also impact teachers’ decisions to remain in their positions.

Financial circumstances notwithstanding, districts have control over some of these issues. They should consider publicizing situations favorable to in-service teachers, as a tool for both recruitment and retention. As districts develop their reform agenda, they should put at the forefront a vision for the type of teaching force needed to support their plans for reform, and use empirical studies as a guide to recruit and retain teachers.

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