A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Losing our teachers: High turnover, shortages, burnout are a problem for our schools and children


By Jan Hillard
NKyTribune data editor

Every year our schools face the persistent problem of teachers deciding not to return to their schools. Over half a million teachers leave or change schools each year. Schools that serve lower income students often see turnover rates that are 50% greater than other schools. In addition, non-retention rates are 70% greater for math and science teachers.

High turnover rates present significant costs for schools. Nationally, the problem of teacher non-retention costs upwards of $8.5 billion each year. The Learning Policy Institute estimates that teacher turnover costs school districts $20-30,000 for every teacher who leaves the district. Non-retention, coupled with the cost of new recruitment, can total 150% of a departing teacher’s salary.

Kentucky & Northern Kentucky Teacher Turnover

On average, 7% of Kentucky teachers leave their teaching positions each year. Teachers age 30 or younger, as well as teachers age 50 and older, have higher than average non-retention rates. Schools who serve poor and minority communities also experience higher than average non-retention rates. In 2020-21 Kentucky’s teacher non-retention rate grew to an average of 16%. While the COVID pandemic influenced this rate, it does not fully explain the increase.

Across Northern Kentucky, on average, 13.4% of teachers left their school district in the 2020-21 academic year. In addition, there is substantial variation in teacher non-retention rates from a low of 7.5% to a high of 21.2% in 2020-21. The school districts with the highest retention rates serve urban and poor communities as measured by the proportion of students eligible for the federal school lunch programs.


Impact on Student Achievement

The impact of teacher non-retention on student achievement is significant. Losing a teacher during the year represents a loss of between 32 and 72 instructional days which equates to 1/6 to ½ of the school year (Henry, 2018).

To cope, schools often rely on alternatively qualified teachers to fill unexpected vacancies, increase class size, or cut offerings. Each directly impacts the learning environment. When a teacher leaves during the school year there is a significant disruption in the continuity of the student learning experience, as well as a break in the student/teacher and teacher/parent relationship.

Not retaining teachers challenges the overall school environment, including relationships with colleagues and administrators. This is particularly difficult when experienced teachers leave. In these cases there can be a significant impact on school culture and loss of institutional memory. Newly hired teachers require an investment of time via mentoring and monitoring. While mentoring and monitoring are essential, these needs detract from time in the classroom.

Photo courtesy the Learning Policy Institute

Unfortunately, it is not unusual for 1/3 of new teachers to leave in their first 3 years of service.

The public often cites poor pay as the root cause of teacher non-retention. However, this is not supported by the research. Instead, factors associated with the quality of work life such as opportunities to develop and grow stand out.

In one study, teachers were presented with 15 factors that impact teacher retention. Teachers ranked pay 11 out of 15. Only 15% feel pay for performance helps retain teachers. In this study the top 5 reasons for non-retention were lack of supportive leadership followed by access to high quality learning resources, professional development, time for collaboration with other teachers, and a collegial work environment.

Teachers yearn for professional development and the opportunity to grow as effective educators. This is echoed in the larger literature on motivation across all professions. Teachers name professional development as a key to improving student achievement, especially in schools that lack curricular resources.

Kentucky & Northern Kentucky Teachers’ Perceptions of Work-life

Kentucky has made a significant investment in understanding teachers’ views on the quality of their work-life. Teachers’ evaluations of such factors as school leadership, opportunities for professional development and school climate serve as strong predictors of teacher retention.

For the past several years, teachers in all the school districts in Kentucky have completed the Impact Survey 2021-22. This survey asks teachers to evaluate 9 dimensions of work-life. State level research shows that school districts whose teachers give high marks to the quality of work-life in their schools, tend to stay at their schools.

In Northern Kentucky the pattern of favorable rankings for the quality of work-life and higher teacher retention also holds true. The Impact Survey 2021-22 shows that those districts with high numbers of teachers leaving are associated with low marks for the dimensions of quality of work-life. These districts are typically those that serve communities with greater poverty and the accompanying student challenges. Any school district can experience lower evaluations for certain aspects of teacher quality of work-life. In these cases, the district has the opportunity to strengthen teacher retention through initiatives designed to raise teachers’ evaluations.

Solving the Problem of Teachers Leaving

The challenge of retaining teachers is fortunately a problem with best-practice solutions. Across the country, Kentucky and our region school leaders are implementing a range of programs that target the key causes of teachers leaving. These initiatives do not assume that one size fits all. Instead, they begin with an assessment of the working-life conditions in their schools and develop actions tailored to address the critical non-retention factors they document. Best practice includes trying various initiatives and monitoring their effectiveness and sticking to non-retention efforts regardless of budgetary or leadership challenges. A number of initiatives are presented below.

Improving Support for New Teachers

High turnover rates, especially in the first 5 years are associated with a lack of administrative support especially support to develop professionally. Research suggests that well-structured induction programs for new teachers that provide mentoring, workshops, opportunities to communicate with school leaders, and professional development can significantly reduce turnover. When coupled with professional awards, the impact of these programs is significantly increased. Providing these programs is especially critical in lower income schools. One study found that a $12,000 investment in a 2-year induction program yielded $25,000 in personnel savings.

Billboards like this one are seen across America.

Improving Teacher Recruitment and Preparation

Research shows that teacher retention can be enhanced with well-designed programs that offer students a career pathway into education as early as high school. This “grow your own” approach builds early comradery and attachment to the education profession.

• For example, the North Carolina Teaching Fellow Program recruits high performing high school students to complete a university teacher preparation program in exchange for a 4-year commitment to a North Carolina school. Many new teacher education students have a preference to work in their own community. Grow your own programs honor this desire and establish clear career pathways in cooperation with university programs.

• Teacher Fellows programs also provide a deep connection and motivation for students to remain in education.

Newport Kentucky’s Tuition Reimbursement Program epitomizes a high-quality incentive model whereby teachers can receive tuition reimbursement for a 5-year commitment to the Newport Schools. The teachers who participate in the program grow professionally and are motivated to stay.

Improving Career Advancement & Development

Teachers who are dissatisfied and consider leaving often cite a lack of autonomy and opportunities for professional growth. Like employees in other sectors, opportunities to develop and grow are the single most important factors in maintaining motivation.

School districts, advocacy groups, and state agencies can support teacher development with no cost workshops, training and credentialing. For example, the National Board of Professional Teacher Standards certification greatly enhances teacher effectiveness. Unfortunately, some school districts are hesitant to support their teachers credentialing out of fear that that will lose those them. To alleviate turnover concerns, progressive school administrators often combine salary bonuses with credentialing.

In addition, teachers who are given leadership roles as mentors and instructional coaches without leaving their classrooms are less likely to leave. Some schools embed these opportunities in career ladders that make explicit the criteria for advancement, reducing uncertainty and lack of transparency. A recent study found that career ladders accompanied by relatively small compensation bonuses increased retention rates of new and experienced teachers.

One such initiative known as the Opportunity Culture, offers teachers release time from classroom duties to acquire leadership skills and apply them alongside mentors and administrators. Another successful model known as the multi-classroom leader allows teachers to assume a mentor role with responsibility for instructional supervision, teacher performance evaluation, and team planning. These enhanced responsibilities signal to a teacher a real commitment to their professional growth, and so reduce turnover.

Improving Administrative Leadership

Administrative behavior and support is a core element of work-life satisfaction and teacher retention. Administrators are charged with maintaining a healthy work environment, responding to teacher’ needs, and providing teacher development. As a result, they are in a unique position to monitor and respond to teacher retention issues at an individual and organizational level. Blaming lack of funding or time limitations to provide these organizational dynamics is a bad business decision as significant turnover will result. Research shows that administrative mentorship and leadership development positively impacts teacher retention and therefore deserves support by school superintendents.

The McREL Balanced Leadership Program is based on enhancing 21 school leader qualities. Schools who embrace this program experience lower turnover. To effectively impact retention, leadership training must be fully transparent in terms of who receives it, ongoing, and celebrated. School leadership’s impact on retention is also strengthened by nominating teachers who show strong instructional leadership to pursue clinical training, training mentor principals, and creating a principal pipeline.

Improving Working Conditions, Workload & Compensation

To retain teachers, working conditions must be safe, predictable, and conducive to learning. Working conditions mediate the relationship between turnover and school demographic challenges. Teachers who express dissatisfaction often cite poor conditions, believing that without better conditions they have no choice but to leave. Some call these “first order” needs.

Excessive workload is one of the top reasons teachers leave. According to the National Audit Office, 67% of school leaders report that workload is a major factor in teachers leaving. Challenges in teacher workload are often framed in terms of the quantity of work. This includes the size of classes, as well as paperwork associated with performance testing. In theory then, reducing workload will lead to higher teacher retention rates. However, this oversimplifies the critical role of other factors, such as development opportunities that stand out above workload. Teachers who leave often focus on the quality not the quantity of the workload. They often refer to the workload associated with implementing accountability systems.

“Practice shock” is the term new teachers often use to describe their workloads.

While pay is not ranked highly by teachers as their primary reason to leave, it remains important. Pay gains in importance when teachers perceive inequities across districts. In these cases, teacher non-retention increases for teachers across all levels of seniority.

Given the political and economic challenges around raising salaries, teacher retention programs have focused on professional certification scholarships, degree related loan forgiveness programs, training bonuses, and other incentive programs. These programs build on the number one factor teachers seek namely, the opportunity to grow and develop as educators. Monetary rewards, albeit small, cements the bond between what the teacher values and the value the school puts on their development.

Conclusion

Evidence-based teacher retention strategies are available to every school regardless of financial condition or demographic challenges. Not retaining teachers represents a substantial financial loss for the school district. In addition, implanting programs and initiatives to retain teachers benefit all teachers, not only those who are considering leaving. These initiatives target specific reasons why teachers leave. They go beyond salary increases to the core of establishing and maintaining a high quality workplace.

Northern Kentucky faces several difficult challenges including competition for teachers from Cincinnati and its surrounding suburbs. These schools may offer professional perks and higher salaries.

Several of Northern Kentucky districts, particularly Covington Independent and Newport, face special challenges and as a result have teacher non-retention rates that are substantially higher than their Northern Kentucky peers. To a large extent this is explained by their urban setting characterized by substantial poverty and students’ challenging family systems.

To make a dent in their problematic retention rates, these schools will need to draw resources from outside the districts including grants and partnerships with the local colleges and university, as well as build retention task forces with administrators, teachers, local foundations, and advocacy groups. These coalitions will produce new ideas, as well as lay the foundation for grant-seeking.

Teacher turnover is a regional problem, exacerbated by the competition for teachers that occurs across the region. While a difficult dynamic, all the districts must co-operate in a joined Northern Kentucky effort to stem the growing reality of teacher turnover.


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4 Comments

  1. JM says:

    I am a former teacher, I actually earned a Masters degree in Education, who lives in NKY now. There is a huge reason that people leave the profession that was not was not asked about in the survey. It is, what I will call, “psycho parents”. The “my little Johnny/Sally would never do that” syndrome. You ask anyone who is a referee or coach of a team for kids and they would back me up on that. Student behavior and parent behavior are the top two reasons hands down. This is especially true in “low income” area schools. The Masters in Education taught me to better organize and present information; otherwise, in hindsight, it was a waste of time and money. Live and learn.

  2. I am a retired teacher and the problems discussed in this article were there when I retired some 20 years ago. I believed then that those problems would get worse and they indeed have. I worked in a Northern Kentucky district with the highest rates of teacher turnover and the problems of poverty, lack of parental and community support and effective leadership and support from school and community administrations were serious problems than as they are now. I survived hostile school environments dealing with the most serious academic and behaviorally challenged student for 27 years and was burned out after about 20 years. I hung on because I was trained to be a teacher and although I tried, I could not get employment at a comparable salary without going back to school to learn a new trade or profession. I’m bitter and angry about my experience as a teacher and can’t imagine a circumstance in which I would ever consider going back into a school environment even as a substitute teacher. College courses fill you with all of the high ideals about being a teacher, but the reality, especially in inner city schools, is very harsh.

  3. Mark Lewis says:

    Very surprised that Newport is low in teacher turnover. They run prison systems better. Hostile work environments with the admin they have there

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