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Why are teachers leaving? Concerns over school safety and consistent enforcement of discipline.

In its attempt to learn why teachers are leaving Georgia schools, is the state Department of Education asking the wrong questions?

Recently, the DOE asked Georgia teachers to respond to a survey hoping to better understand why 47 percent leave the profession within five years. (The survey is now closed.)

The DOE survey asked teachers to rank the reasons why teachers flee. The list of reasons included level of benefits/compensation, level of preparation when entering the profession, level of teacher participation in decisions related to profession, level/quality of ongoing support, resources and professional learning, non-teaching school responsibilities/duties, number and emphasis of mandated tests, school level/district level leadership and teacher evaluation method.

After reading the list  here on the blog , education researcher Gary Henry sent me a note. A nationally recognized expert in teacher quality, Henry said the DOE list overlooks two key reasons teachers leave. “School safety and consistent enforcement of discipline are at the top of the list in our research and some previous research, but not included in the Georgia survey,” he wrote.

Henry, who evaluated the HOPE Scholarship and pre-k while on the faculty at Georgia State University, is a Patricia and Rodes Hart Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and Education in the Department of Leadership, Policy and Organization, Peabody College at Vanderbilt University. He formerly held the Duncan MacRae ’09 and Rebecca Kyle MacRae Professorship of Public Policy in the Department of Public Policy and directed the Carolina Institute for Public Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

His email prompted me to call him in Nashville to talk about his latest research examining turnover of teachers in some of the lowest achieving schools in Tennessee, the schools chosen for takeover by the Achievement School District. (The Tennessee ASD is one of the models for Gov. Nathan Deal’s Opportunity School District proposal that goes before voters next year.)

Henry's research identified five influential factors in teachers leaving -- administrative support, discipline, school safety, class size and professional development.

“If I had to pick two or three, I would list administrative support of faculty and consistent enforcement of discipline and safety.  They appear to be non-negotiable and must-haves on the list to keep teachers. There are a lot more concerns about safety among teachers than we have acknowledged in the past,” Henry said.

So what does school safety mean exactly?

“I think it is setting a tone,” said Henry. “What appears in the school turnaround work that we have been doing is that community approaches – restorative justice programs -- seem to make a difference.”

Schools that have improved safety recast school resource officers as part of the community, said Henry. “They are more integrated with students. They have them coming to football games and after-school activities. They promote relationships with students for the officers rather than kinds of policing functions. The whole school decides discipline is everybody’s issue and students have a voice in it, too, “

There are other small steps to promote an academic focus within these schools, said Henry, such as limiting announcements to once a day to minimize distractions during class.

The research on what influences teachers to quit is important, said Henry, because the tide of teachers leaving can be reversed by fixing what he describes as "malleable" factors -- things that can be changed within the school building. "If we are talking about retaining existing teachers, we need to think inside the box," he said.

Many people assume teachers flee because of school characteristics such as income levels or racial composition, but Henry said those factors are not as critical. As Henry and his co-authors write in their new study, "Dynamics of the Teacher Labor Market in the 21st Century: Theoretical Underpinnings and an Empirical Investigation":

Generally, short-term unchangeable school characteristics such as income levels or racial composition are less important to teachers who have worked in high poverty and low achieving schools.  Also, structural conditions, such as salary and, to a lesser extent, performance-based pay are important to teachers.  Eligibility for tenure appears to be less important overall but is more important to experienced teachers than novice teachers.

The findings suggest that malleable school processes are likely to have the greatest influence on the decisions of teachers to move from one school to the other.  These processes include, starting with the most important, consistent administrative support, consistent enforcement of discipline, school safety, small class sizes, and availability of high quality PD.  On the bright side, these may be more directly under the control of school administrators and therefore, these findings could help these schools to attract a larger pool of teachers into high poverty, high minority schools.  However, without all of these processes in place, it seems that teachers who are willing to teach in high poverty, low achieving schools, such as in our study sample, are unlikely to choose to move to these schools.  If these are the list of five “must haves” to attract these teachers to move to these schools, the least important of the five appears to be availability of high quality PD.

Perhaps surprising in this analysis is the relatively low importance or pull of structural features or even more of school characteristics.  The responses of individuals when asked about preferred school characteristics might be biased by social desirability, but we are less concerned about this threat with this sample and the ACA survey design. Teachers who work at high poverty, minority, low achieving schools might feel pressure to select a preference for those school characteristic attributes but when the ACA software uses paired tradeoff comparisons the teachers showed less of a preference for any of the school attributes levels. The survey design forces teachers to go beyond their initial responses on the desirability of working in certain settings to ascertain the rank order of what is really important in school selection.

I asked Henry whether the teacher shortage is approaching a critical point. Absolutely, he said, citing the falling enrollment in teacher preparation programs.

Henry said states have not done a good job keeping teachers, citing Georgia's reversal of the bonus promised to teachers who achieved National Board Certification. With current salary schedules, little incentive exists to enter the teaching profession and stay, he said.

The bonus was "really key, not only in reducing teacher turnover, but in keeping the best teachers. It is not that the process of board certification makes them better teachers," said Henry, "but better teachers go through the process. I just don't think we are very smart on the ways we are spending money on teachers."


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.