The Importance of Teacher Retention for Improving Student Achievement

Building a High-Quality Teacher Workforce: The Importance of Teacher Retention for Improving Student Achievement


Indiana’s Policy Context: Efforts to de-professionalize teaching are on the rise


Indiana has a strong history of providing rigorous standards for the teaching profession and setting a high bar when it comes to licensing and staffing practices. Yet, the aggressive “reforms” over the past several years have taken major steps in chipping away at those standards.

Salaries have remained stagnant, the quick expansion of voucher and charter schools have decreased the level of licensure and training required in certain schools, and now the State Board of Education is attempting to fast-track a career specialist permit that would remove the requirement for teachers to have a background in education and extensive pedagogy training.

More and more research has clearly indicated that teacher quality is directly associated with student achievement. Recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers is essential for improving learning in the state of Indiana. However, policymakers continue to implement policies at a rapid pace that are reducing incentives to enter and remain in the profession. Indiana’s students deserve better.

This policy brief uncovers significant research on the importance of retaining high-quality teachers and outlines the negative effects on student achievement when teachers leave their schools. It is time for Indiana policymakers to take a careful look at how state policies are changing the profession in a way that harms Hoosier students.


Why is teacher attrition a problem?

  • Teacher attrition is a growing concern among policymakers and is increasing at alarming rates.  About half a million teachers exit their current schools annually (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2008).  Teacher attrition can hinder a school’s ability to maintain a stable and effective learning environment (Clotfelter, Ladd, Vigdor, and Wheeler, 2007; Boyd et al., 2009).  Attrition also reduces collegiality and cohesion among teachers (Boyd et al., 2008). 
  • High rates of teacher attrition negatively impact student achievement, especially among low-income and minority students, and so low-performing schools are often the ones hurt most by teacher turnover (Grissom, 2009).  These schools are in a perpetual cycle of turnover in which turnover contributes to lower student performance, and lower student performance then further increases attrition (Barnes, Crowe, and Schaefer, 2007). 
  • High-poverty schools have disproportionate numbers of inexperienced teachers, leading to turnover rates that are up to fifty percent higher than low-poverty schools (Ingersoll, 2001, p. 516, cited in Loeb et al., 2005; NCTAF, 2007).  Attrition is highest among new teachers—particularly, those with less than 3 years of teaching experience (Ingersoll 2001; Kelly 2004; Marvel, et al. 2006; Grissmer and Kirby, 1997). 
  • Almost one third of beginning teachers leave their school or the entire profession by the end of their first year (Ingersoll and Smith, 2004), and up to fifty percent of beginning teachers leave within the first five years (Ingersoll and Smith, 2003).
  • Attrition is also higher in urban and rural schools than in suburban schools, schools with higher proportions of students eligible for free-and reduced-price lunch (FRPL), schools with larger numbers of Limited English Speakers (LEP), and schools with large proportions of minority students (Barnes, Crowe, and Schaefer, 2007; Scafidi et al., 2005). 
  • Additionally, the draw home for teachers makes it difficult for schools in urban and rural districts to recruit new applicants, and the applicants that they do receive are likely to be assigned to high-poverty schools with more vacancies, as existing teachers are given priority for assignment choices (Clotfelter, Ladd, Vigdor, and Wheeler, 2007). 
  • Attrition is also highest in schools with lower pay, weak administrative support, lack of teacher empowerment in decision-making, and frequent student misbehavior (Boyd et al., 2009)
  • Attrition is also very costly, as it requires additional resources for recruitment and training (Darling-Hammond, 2006; Haberman, 2005; Ladd, 2009; Grissom, 2009).  Other costs associated with teacher turnover include advertising expenses, incentives (e.g. salary supplements, housing stipends, bonuses, etc.), administrative costs (e.g. paperwork, processing new applicants), professional development, and mentoring (Barnes, Crowe, and Schaefer, 2007).  Turnover costs can add up to $10,000 or more per teacher and costs the nation billions of dollars annually (NCTAF, 2007).  Some research shows that turnover associated costs can amount to 20 to 200 percent of teachers’ total annual salaries (NCTAF, 2007; Benner, 2002). 
  • The Department of Labor estimates turnover costs at 30 percent of the leaving employee’s salary (NCTAF, 2007).
  • Attrition increases the work burden for staff and takes away scarce resources from other vital areas (Loeb et. al, 2005; Theobald and Michael, 2002).
  • Attrition costs are grouped into 8 major categories. Districts can quantify costs associated with each category:
    • Recruitment and advertising
    • Incentives (e.g. signing bonuses, moving costs, housing allowances, etc.)
    • Administrative paperwork and processing (e.g. background checks, health records, reference checks, interviews, etc.)
    • New hire training
    • Beginning teacher training (e.g. stipends for mentors)
    • Professional development
    • Learning curve (costs to student learning due to inexperienced staff)
    • Transfer costs

What factors influence teacher attrition and retention rates?

School Working Conditions

  • Recent research on teacher retention has focused largely on school working conditions.  Creating better working conditions might be an effective way to increase retention in hard-to-staff schools.  Improving working conditions could be a less costly and more politically feasible alternative to improving retention (Ladd, 2009). 
  • A study using national teacher survey data found that teachers’ perceptions of their school’s working conditions and environment “were the most significant predictors of beginning teacher’s morale, career choice commitment and plans to stay in teaching” (Loeb et al., 2005, p. 47).
  • Six categories of school working conditions are significant factors determining teachers’ employment decisions (Ladd, 2009):

1)      School leadership

2)      Facilities and resources

3)      Teacher empowerment

4)      Professional development

5)      Mentoring

6)      Time

  • Building an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust is also a crucial factor (Hirsch and Church, 2009).
  • Teachers’ perceptions about their work environment are directly related to their decisions to remain at a particular school. Support from colleagues and administrators is the most significant determinant of a teacher’s decision to stay or leave (Barnett, Fuller and Williams, 2007).
  • Principal leadership is the most significant factor in schools with higher proportions of low-performing, disadvantaged students (Branch, Hanushek, and Rivkin, 2009).
  • Teaching assignments, also related to school working conditions, impact teachers’ perceptions about their jobs.  Teaching out-of-field (i.e. subject outside of one’s area of certification), or teaching multiple subjects, can decrease retention by adding to a teacher’s workload and thus creating additional stress and pressure (Ondrich et al., 2005). 
  • A lack of resources can accelerate this problem and further increase turnover rates (Borman, 2008).  Leadership and support are important factors affecting teachers’ attitudes about their work environment (Brown, Gonzalez, and Slate, 2008), and evidence from the 1999-2000 Schools and Staffing Survey shows that novice teachers in particular are less likely to leave their current school if they feel that they have influence over school policy and a greater sense of empowerment (Liu, 2007). 
  • Disciplinary problems and lack of support from administrators are the most influential factors that cause teachers to leave low-income schools (Loeb, 2005).

Class Size

  • Teachers in smaller classes have higher satisfaction levels (Zahorik et al., 2005) and higher morale (Cohen et al., 2000).
  • Increases in class sizes can increase teacher quit decisions (Mont and Rees, 1996).
  • Teachers in schools with smaller class sizes have lower rates of attrition (Isenberg, 2010).
  • Class size reductions have positive effects for students, particularly strong in grades K-3 and for low-income and minority students (Robinson and Wittebols, 1986).
  • Smaller classes reduce the gap between white and black students, and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more sensitive to class size (Hanushek, 1998; Grave et al., 2005).
  • Student achievement decreases as the student-teacher ratio increases by each additional student over 18:1 (Ferguson, 1991).
  • Potential advantages of class size reductions include fewer distractions, a friendlier atmosphere more conducive to socialization, greater attention on each student, closer monitoring of student progress by teachers and increased space for teachers to work (Grave et al., 2005).

Accountability Pressures

  • Accountability policies are another aspect of the school work environment that affects teachers’ perceptions about their teaching assignments.  Increased pressures, particularly in low-performing schools failing to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) – as well as teacher evaluations and school A-F letter grades in Indiana –  can potentially increase teacher attrition because the label of a failing school attaches a stigma, and in addition to driving current teachers away this stigma can also keep effective teachers from seeking employment at these schools (Clotfelter, Ladd, Vigdor, and Diaz, 2004). 
  • Accountability pressure creates additional workload and serves as a disincentive for teachers to take assignments in these hard-to-staff schools.  Attrition is higher in schools facing accountability pressure (e.g. A-F), although high-performing schools may also face pressure due to a desire to maintain their status (Feng, Figlio, and Sass, 2010).
  • Teachers perceive a disconnection between accountability reform and everyday school life (Conley, 2003).
  • Accountability policies only have a modest impact on teacher motivation, but also show a negative impact on levels of commitment (Mintrop, 2003).
  • The lack of alignment between policy and teachers’ goals, perceptions of their ability to implement policies, unrealistic time restraints and lack of resources decreases motivation levels (Leithwood, Steinbach and Jantzi, 2002).
  • Accountability pressures can demoralize teachers (Finnigan and Gross, 2007) and decrease autonomy and flexibility (Szczesiul, 2009; Loeb and Estrada, 2003).

Professional Development

  • Professional development can increase collegiality and collaboration among teachers, which can result in greater job satisfaction and a greater likelihood that a teacher will remain in his or her current school. 
  • Effective professional development should be aligned with practice and support collegiality among teachers (Darling-Hammond et al., 2009). 
  • Research shows that school-wide professional development is most effective, especially when it is linked to student learning and the curriculum (Hiebert, Gallimore, and Stigler, 2002). 
  • Although professional development widely varies and includes numerous components, research indicates that longer, continuous programs have a more significant impact than short, unstructured programs (Garet et al., 2001).

Teacher Induction and Mentoring

  • Teacher induction programs have the potential to reduce attrition rates among beginning teachers (Latham and Vogt, 2007). 
  • Induction may reduce attrition by up to 50 percent (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2004; Southeast Center for Teacher Quality, 2004). 
  • It is also vital for school leaders to create and foster a sense of community in the early years of a teacher’s career.  Increased support and assistance at the early stage of teaching can improve retention in hard-to-staff schools (Cherian and Daniel, 2008). 
  • Induction helps to build a cohesive professional culture and collaborative teacher networks (Wong, 2004). 
  • Using data from the 1991-92 School and Staffing Survey, Ingersoll and Kralik (2004) found that assistance for beginning teachers has positive effects on job satisfaction
  • The study also found that a strong association exists between the level of assistance and the probability of teacher exits.  Teachers who felt that their schools provided effective support were 92 percent less likely to leave.
  • Mentoring also reduces teacher attrition rates when compared to teachers not receiving any similar support (Borman, 2008).  Some studies show that successfully implemented mentoring programs lead to higher job satisfaction and retention of novice teachers (Ingersoll and Smith, 2004). 
  • By improving support for teachers and assisting them in their adaptation to their current assignments, teachers are likely to feel a greater sense of commitment to the school and will be less likely to leave.
  • Nationally, a mere 17 percent of teachers report being observed by mentors, and 56 percent of new teachers say that they have no additional assistance when beginning teaching (Kardos and Liu, 2003). 
  • Even more surprising is that only one percent of novice teachers receive continuous and comprehensive support when beginning teaching (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2004). 
  • While induction programs widely vary across districts and schools, research indicates that the most significant factors for improving retention are having a mentor in the same field, having common planning time with teachers in the same field, time for collaboration, and having access to teacher networks (Ingersoll and Smith, 2004). 
  • Evidence from the 1991-92 and 1999-2000 Schools and Staffing Survey shows that teachers receiving a first year mentor in the same field have a 30 percent reduction in departure rates in their first year (Ingersoll and Kralik, 2004; Ingersoll and Smith, 2004). 
  • Common planning time for teachers in the same field led to a 44 percent lower probability of leaving, and collaboration reduced the likelihood of departure by 27 percent
  • The more comprehensive the induction program is, as measured by the number of support components received, the greater the reduction in turnover (Ingersoll and Kralik, 2004).

Where do we go from here? The future of the teaching profession in Indiana

Education continues to be politicized in Indiana, and a growing number of states across the country continue to experiment with “reforms” of the day to the detriment of students. Long-established metrics such as educational level and experience have been discounted as ineffective measures of teacher quality. However, the research shows the opposite. Attracting and retaining a high-quality teacher into every classroom is crucial for the future of the teaching profession. If state policies continue to drive teachers out of the profession and deter others from ever becoming a teacher, the outcome boils down to one issue: students will pay the price when it comes to achievement. Our students and our teachers who devote their careers to their students’ success deserve better.

Policymakers should refocus their efforts to implementing policies that build the teaching profession and incentivize high-quality individuals to enter and stay in the teacher workforce. Such policies include:

  • Providing meaningful professional development opportunities to improve instructional practice in the classroom.
  • Providing adequate funding and resources for teacher induction, mentoring and sustainable teacher salaries.
  • Investing in support and development for new teachers.
  • Professional development for administrators to improve leadership, teacher supports and effective feedback.
  • Greater time and resources for teacher collaboration.
  • Building a school culture of collegiality, trust and mutual respect.
  • Improving working conditions to promote morale and increase staff retention.
  • Targeting retention strategies for at-risk schools.
  • Tracking teacher attrition and the costs associated with turnover. Providing updated data systems to districts will help determine areas of high turnover and develop cost-effective solutions. Data is needed in the following areas:
    • Subject areas
    • Licensure
    • Teacher assignment
    • Years of experience
    • Recruitment and replacement costs
    • Mentoring, induction and professional development costs
    • Promoting attitudes that elevate the teaching profession by maintaining high standards rather than watering down requirements to enter the workforce.

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