What’s Driving Teachers Away From High-Poverty Schools?
Staffing high-poverty schools with effective teachers remains a critical challenge for many districts. Research shows consistently higher turnover rates among teachers in these schools. As explained in a 2013 article in the American Educational Research Journal, this turnover results in organizational instability and a concentration of less experienced, lower performing teachers, both of which hurt student achievement.
Teachers who leave high-poverty schools serving minority students tend to move to schools attended by whiter, wealthier, and higher achieving students. But why do they go? What’s the underlying cause of the turnover in these high-need schools?
Teaching high-need students presents teachers with a host of stresses and challenges. For some teachers, teaching students in schools in wealthier communities is likely a draw, and this prospect makes it easier for these schools to attract, select, and retain more effective teachers. Recent research, however, suggests a different cause predominates.
Instead of choosing to leave certain types of students, teachers are leaving the dysfunctional schools these students attend. Three recent studies published in the American Educational Research Journal, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, and Teachers College Record suggest that these turnover patterns reflect teachers’ preferences for better working environments, rather than different types of students. And better working environments tend to go hand-in-hand with students’ socioeconomic backgrounds. For example, in the Teachers College Record study of the teaching conditions in Massachusetts schools, Susan Moore Johnson, Matt Kraft, and I found that 53 percent of teachers in the lowest poverty schools strongly agreed that their school is a good place to work and learn, compared with just 32 percent of teachers in the highest poverty schools.
Working environments or conditions encompass more than facilities and textbooks, although both are important. In fact, we found that the “social conditions of work”—the principal’s leadership, the support of colleagues, and the school culture—appear to matter most for teachers’ satisfaction and career decisions. In other words, teachers stay when they have a supportive and effective principal, work well with their colleagues, and teach in schools with high levels of trust and respect among teachers and students.
Not only are teachers in supportive working environments more likely to stick around; they also are more likely to grow as effective educators. In a separate working paper, Matt Kraft and I found that teachers in more supportive environments improve their practice (as measured by their contributions to students’ test scores) more than teachers in less supportive environments. This evidence builds on similar results from recent studies published in the American Economic Review and the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics showing that teachers improve more rapidly when they participate in a high-quality teacher evaluation system or when they teach with more effective peers.
So what do we know about schools as working environments for teachers? Taken together, these studies suggest that ensuring all learners have access to great teachers means all schools must become places where teachers work and students learn in a carefully organized environment that supports them. This takeaway gives us a starting point, but much more needs to be understood.
Now it’s your turn. What do you think?
Teachers: What elements of the school work environment matter most to you? What keeps you in the profession and what promotes your professional growth?
Everyone: What can district and state leaders do to improve the social conditions of teachers’ work?
John Papay, Ed.D., is assistant professor of education and economics at Brown University. A former high school history teacher, his research focuses on the teacher labor market and policies that affect teachers and their work. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.