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Working paper: Reviewing the evidence on teacher attrition and retention

Matt Springer feature image

In a blog post for the Brown Center Chalkboard, Springer and a colleague summarize recently published results of a meta-analysis examining factors that affect teacher attrition.

A new meta-analysis by Matthew Springer and colleagues illuminates some of the factors that most affect teachers’ decisions to leave their schools.

Springer, the Robena and Walter E. Hussman, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Education Reform, co-authored with Tuan Nguyen of Kansas State University a post for the Brown Center Chalkboard, a platform for educational research working papers hosted by the Brookings Institution. In the post, Springer and Nguyen tease out the main findings of their meta-analysis of 120 studies regarding what drives teachers to leave a particular school. Lam Pham and Michael Crouch, both students at Vanderbilt University, were other co-authors of the study.

“Decades of research have shown that teachers are the single most important school-based factor in student achievement,” Springer and Nguyen wrote in the Chalkboard post. “The research base on teacher attrition continues to grow as teacher turnover remains a salient issue for many schools, particularly in economically disadvantaged districts. A high level of turnover is negatively associated with student achievement and there are monetary (and human capital) costs of replacing teachers.

“Moreover, teacher mobility patterns play an important role in the equitable education of all students, and there is strong evidence of inequities in access to highly effective instruction across schools and districts,” Springer and Nguyen said.

The meta-analysis examined three primary categories of factors that affect teacher attrition and retention:

Personal correlates, such as age, race/ethnicity and gender. Among other things, the analysis found strong evidence that teacher satisfaction plays an important role in teacher decisions to stay in the profession.

School correlates, which describe school organizational characteristics and resources. The analysis found that various measures of school organizational characteristics, such as student disciplinary problems, administrative support, and professional development, strongly influence teacher turnover.

External correlates, such as accountability and school improvement efforts. The analysis found many external correlates are associated with teacher attrition and retention. Springer and Nguyen added: “Interestingly, being evaluated, even for accountability purposes, does not seem to increase teacher attrition. In fact, the odds of attrition for teachers who are assessed are somewhat smaller than those who are not.”

Topline findings

Among the findings to emerge from the analysis:

    • Additional supports and incentives appear necessary to keep specific types of teachers in their schools — namely, STEM teachers, special education teachers, and novice teachers.
    • Despite concerns of potential negative consequences of teacher evaluation and accountability, the study did not find that performance evaluations increase teacher attrition.
    • Teachers in merit-based pay programs are less likely to leave teaching than those who are not. Evaluation and accountability policies are positively perceived by some teachers and have more beneficial effects than previously recognized.

Areas for further study

The authors said there is a need for more study of the effects of “relational demography,” such as race-matching between teachers and principals, or between teachers and students, as there are only a few studies between relational demography and teacher attrition. Constance Lindsay, who joined Carolina’s School of Education this year, has conducted this kind of research. She co-authored a widely cited study that found when black students had even one black teacher, they were less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to aspire to college.

Other work is needed, Springer and Nguyen said.

“While there is an ever larger proportion of studies using quasi-experimental techniques to estimate causal effects of programs and policies on teacher attrition and retention, we need to further explore policy levers that can positively impact the teacher labor force and improve the educational opportunities for students from traditionally marginalized backgrounds,” they wrote.

“In an effort to propel this dialogue, our meta-analysis offers nuance to many commonly held beliefs on teacher turnover while providing new suggestive evidence of what we can do to positively impact the profession. It is now time for policy, practice, and future research to push our understanding and impact further.”