Too often in education, policy wonks and researchers (like me) talk about an issue in ways that bear little resemblance to the way it plays out on the grounds for teachers and students. I was reminded of this fact this year as I examined a McKnight Foundation initiative to align and improve pre-K to third-grade reading instruction and assessment in seven Minnesota schools. The project forced me to question my assumptions about teacher and leader turnover, how it impacts schools, and the role of state and district policy. McKnight launched the Pathways Schools Initiative with bold ambitions to support significant improvements in student learning, but those gains didn’t materialize in most participating schools. With support from the Foundation, we interviewed various stakeholders and examined the results of an in-depth evaluation conducted by SRI International to see what we could learn. Our takeaways are available in a new website, Supporting Minnesota Educators.
Some of the most complex—and surprising—insights relate to the role that educator turnover played in the Initiative. First, I expected teacher turnover in Pathway Schools would be uniformly high. These are urban elementary schools (five traditional schools, two charter schools), where nearly 90 percent of students overall are low income. I knew from national research that urban schools serving many students in poverty tend to have the highest rates of teacher turnover. Instead, there was considerable variation in turnover between schools and between years. At one school, nearly 75 percent of teachers left or changed roles in a two-year period. Other schools had very little turnover—lower than the state average for all schools in some years. Second, I thought turnover’s impact would be limited to classrooms with new teachers. But, what I saw in the Pathway Schools Initiative was a much more complex relationship between staff stability and school improvement. Looking at test scores and turnover over multiple years, evaluators found no clear relationship between teachers’ time in the Initiative and student test scores. The schools in the Initiative mirrored the literature on teacher turnover, which finds mixed effects on student outcomes.
Turnover: Why Does It Happen?
Several people pointed out that turnover by itself isn’t necessarily good or bad. The question is, why does it happen and who replaces the departing teachers? Schoolwide effects of teacher turnover are difficult to pinpoint, but loss of teachers, principals and coaches may impede progress. With high turnover, schools lose institutional knowledge and it takes time and resources to get replacements up to speed. Another factor is district-level turnover and district policy decisions. All three traditional school districts in the Initiative experienced superintendent turnover, which led to reorganizations of district leadership. Even in schools with a stable principal and staff, turnover in central office leadership could mean a shakeup in priorities that could have compromised the initiative. Additionally, factors like district staffing processes, compensation systems, and teacher contracts all shape who transfers or leaves, who gets hired, and what support new hires get as they start their roles.
A Reality Check
My reality check on the complexities of turnover in school systems makes me wonder if state and district decision-makers have similarly flawed assumptions about turnover in their schools. Moreover, do their assumptions prevent them from identifying the most effective solutions, improving policies and processes, and giving each school the right kinds of support? School and district leaders should examine data for each school and survey teachers to identify turnover trends and causes in order to choose remedies with the best chance of success. For example, turnover of new teachers might require better onboarding, mentoring and support systems. Turnover of hard-to-staff positions might be better addressed with differentiated pay and other incentives. And again, not all turnover is bad. When a teacher or leader is ineffective or unsuited to his or her role, change can bring progress if schools attract and retain strong, new talent. Schools and districts need an array of policy solutions to ensure staff turnover does not hurt school improvement efforts. It starts with all of us, educators, leaders and policy wonks questioning our assumptions, looking at the data and studying the conditions in schools.
Bonnie O'Keefe is a senior analyst with Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit focused on dramatically changing education and life outcomes for underserved children. Since 2016, Bonnie has worked on a wide range of issues, including state education policies, accountability systems, and early childhood education.
Prior to joining Bellwether, Bonnie worked on local education policy ...