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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