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Teacher Turnover in High-Poverty Schools: What We Know and Can Do

by Nicole S. Simon & Susan Moore Johnson - 2015

Background/Context: Over the past three decades, teacher turnover has increased substantially in U.S. public schools, especially in those serving large portions of low-income students of color. Teachers who choose to leave high-poverty schools serving large numbers of students of color usually transfer to schools serving wealthier, Whiter student populations. Some researchers have interpreted this trend to mean that “teachers systematically favor higher-achieving, non-minority, non-low-income students.” These ideas have influenced policy analysis concerning high-poverty schools but offered little guidance for those who would address this problem.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This article presents an alternative explanation for turnover—one grounded in organizational theory and substantiated by an emerging line of research. In doing so, it reframes the debate over what fuels high rates of teacher turnover in high-poverty schools and provides advice for policy makers and practitioners, as well as recommendations for productive possibilities for future research.

Research Design: This article reviews six studies analyzing turnover as a function of school context rather than as a function of student demographics. Based on the patterns regarding what factors influence teacher departures across these studies, we pursue these predictors by summarizing what is known about them and how each supports teachers’ work.

Findings/Results: The six overarching studies reviewed here collectively suggest that teachers who leave high-poverty schools are not fleeing their students. Rather, they are fleeing the poor working conditions that make it difficult for them to teach and for their students to learn. The working conditions that teachers prize most—and those that best predict their satisfaction and retention—are social in nature. They include school leadership, collegial relationships, and elements of school culture.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The poor working conditions common in America’s neediest schools explain away most, if not all, of the relationship between student characteristics and teacher attrition. This is important because, unlike demographic characteristics of students, working conditions can be addressed. Policy makers and practitioners have many options for improving aspects of the school environment, and, although more research can inform this work, much is already known about what matters to teachers as they are deciding whether to continue teaching in their schools.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 3, 2015, p. 1-36
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17810, Date Accessed: 9/28/2021 9:00:34 PM

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About the Author
  • Nicole Simon
    Harvard University
    E-mail Author
    NICOLE S. SIMON is a doctoral candidate in culture, communities and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she is a research assistant at the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers. She began her career in the New York City public schools. Simon holds a B.S. in human development and an M.S. in design & environmental analysis, both from Cornell University, and an M.Ed. in learning and teaching from Harvard. She received the 2007 Global Kids Urban Educator Fellowship for her work with young men of color and the 2011 Radcliffe/Rappaport Policy Fellowship, which supported her work on educator evaluation at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
  • Susan Moore Johnson
    Harvard University
    SUSAN MOORE JOHNSON is the Jerome T. Murphy Professor in Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she served as academic dean from 1993 to 1999. A former high school teacher and administrator, Johnson has a continuing research interest in the work of teachers and the reform of schools. She has studied the leadership of superintendents, the effects of collective bargaining on schools, the priorities of local union leaders, teacher evaluation, the use of incentive pay plans for teachers, and the school as a context for adult work. Johnson has published five books and many articles about these topics. Since 1998, Johnson has directed a multiyear research study, the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, which examines how best to recruit, support, and retain a strong teaching force. In 2004, Johnson and her colleagues at the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers published Finders and Keepers: Helping New Teachers Survive and Thrive in Our Schools. Recently, Johnson and John P. Papay proposed a new career-based plan for teachers’ pay in Redesigning Teacher Pay, published by the Economic Policy Institute.
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