Challenge isn’t getting teachers into classroom. It’s keeping them.

Researcher says we lose too many teachers and lack of autonomy is a big factor

America has developed a slew of programs, enticements and initiatives to lure people into teaching in the belief we’re not producing enough teachers. All are worthwhile but unlikely to solve the teacher shortage, according to one of the nation’s leading researchers on why teachers quit.

“The problem is not that we don’t produce enough teachers,” said Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania. “We lose too many.”

Speaking this week at a crowded Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education forum and afterward in an interview, Ingersoll said teaching suffers a high quit rate, higher than nurses, architects, engineers or even police officers. (Career tip from Ingersoll:  Pharmacy.  “I know nothing about it but, for some reason, no one quits pharmacy,” he said.)

In a 10 to 12 month period, around a million U.S. teachers move into, between and out of schools. Noting that turnover can improve an organization — “You want weaker members moving out and fresh blood moving in” — Ingersoll said there’s also a downside.

Schools experiencing extreme staff churn are often in higher poverty areas. The revolving door disrupts the environment, sets back student achievement, undermines cohesion and leads to strings of subs in classrooms.

Nationally, 40 to 50 percent of new teachers leave their jobs in five years, according to Ingersoll. He credits Georgia with defying the national rate with only 32 percent leaving. “So, whatever you are doing is working,” he said.

(I will be writing about some things that appear to be working in the next few days. Among them, Fulton’s yearlong internship in which newly minted teachers are inducted into the district, made to feel part of it, mentored and then offered contracts if they do well, said Ron Wade, chief talent officer for Fulton.  Fulton gave contracts to 39 interns out of a class of 45. The district wants to keep this cohort and rally them around the theme of staying in the classroom with a “Get to Five” motto.)

Teachers cite a variety of reasons for quitting. Pay is among them, but doesn’t top the list. Almost half blame a personal or family reason — a spouse’s new job, health issues, raising babies or tending aging parents.

But another major cause cited is dissatisfaction over the way their school is administered, to how student assessments and school accountability impact teaching, to student discipline problems, and to a lack of input into decisions and lack of classroom autonomy over their teaching.

And those conditions are especially detrimental to efforts to retain minority teachers, who are often more successful at raising the performance of students of color. 

While 44% of all elementary and secondary students were minority, only 17.3% of all elementary and secondary teachers were minority. This is not because of a failure to recruit teachers of color, said Ingersoll.

Since the late 1980s, the number of minority elementary and secondary teachers has increased by over 100%, outpacing growth in the number of nonminority teachers and outpacing growth in minority students. And those teachers are overwhelmingly working in schools serving disadvantaged and minority student populations. 

But minority teachers, especially men, have the highest turnover rates. According to Ingersoll, a key driver was their lack of autonomy in their classrooms.

His study “Recruitment, Employment, Retention and the Minority Teacher Shortage” published this month states: 

This finding is consistent with a long line of our research showing the importance of professional autonomy and teacher “voice” in schools. However, teachers’ classroom autonomy appears to have shrunk in recent years with the implementation of accountability reforms, especially in urban school districts. Some studies have found a growing tension with teachers increasingly held accountable for issues, decisions and outcomes over which they may have little, or even diminishing, control – leading to higher teacher turnover Organizational accountability and employee authority are not necessarily contradictory imperatives. Leading thinkers in the applied field of organizational leadership have long advocated a balanced approach wherein organizational accountability and employee authority go hand in hand. In this view, employees should not be held accountable for things over which they have no control; likewise, employees should not be granted control or autonomy without commensurate accountability. The importance of balancing teachers’ responsibilities and authority is borne out in our own research showing that schools in which teachers are both held to high academic standards and allowed substantial input into decision-making have higher teacher retention and higher student achievement. 

As far back as 100 years, people were calling for granting teachers more authority over their classrooms and their profession, said Ingersoll. Yet, many teachers are still without it in 2019.

When I first interviewed Ingersoll 20 years ago, we chatted about teachers not getting the respect they deserve or even the basic professional accoutrements that most college-educated workers took for granted, including a phone at their desks.

Now, teacher have phones — their own, of course — but respect remains in short supply.

Despite the sluggish pace of change, Ingersoll points to positive trends, including teacher-run charter schools and legislation in some states mandating shared decision-making by school councils dominated by teachers.

Not all principals are willing to share power, arguing they must retain control because they’re ultimately held accountable for the school’s outcomes. Ingersoll suggests schools consider the law firm model of management where the partners practice collective decision-making.

“If we want to improve student learning, we need a qualified teacher in every class,” said Ingersoll. “We are not going to fix it by making more teachers. We have to improve the dissatisfaction with working conditions. If we slow down turnover, we improve student learning.”

About the Author

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