What Makes Teachers Stay, Or Leave?

Hint: it's not always money

What Makes Teachers Stay, Or Leave?
Setting more uniform teacher pay statewide and improving teacher retention are among the aims of a new Washington state task force. However, experts say retention is not all about the Benjamins. Photo: Bellevue Schools Foundation.

How to improve teacher retention could be among the recommendations to the legislature for next year from Washington state’s new Joint Education Funding Task Force.

Teacher Turnover Can Hurt Student Learning

For students and their parents greater teacher retention could boost learning and achievement, according to a 2012 report by the American Institutes for Research. The report found teacher turnover causes a “disruptive effect” on student scores in subjects like math.

Better balancing of teacher pay across the state’s disparate school districts might help entice them to stay in more competitive markets. In the 2014-15 school year the K-12 district in Bellevue had a lower retention rate for new teachers, 77.8 percent, than the state rate of 81.9 percent and the 92 percent for the Yakima School District.

It turns out that the average Bellevue teacher salary is roughly $49,000 versus $52,201 statewide and $52,000 in Yakima. Of all Bellevue teachers, 72 percent have a master’s degree or higher compared to 62 percent in Yakima. However, the average Bellevue teacher has 11 years experience compared to the average 14 years of experience for teachers in Yakima and statewide. Teachers with a master’s degree or higher make up 68 percent of the state’s public K-12 instructional workforce.

Determining why teachers leave a school has also proved tricky. At a May meeting of the task force, Senior Policy Analyst David Brenna of the state’s Professional Educator Standards Board (PESB) said their data analysis shows some teachers are moving around from one district to another. However, they haven’t determined yet where the shift is occurring.

Better Principals, New Teacher Support Are Key

But while adjusting teacher pay might help, Brenna said better school leadership and stronger support for starting teachers their first year are higher priorities for improving teacher retention.

“Working conditions are typically more important than almost anything else,” he said.

PESB Executive Director Jennifer Wallace credited strong teacher support as one of the reasons for the Yakima School District’s high retention rate compared to the state average.

Some lawmakers believe more state funding for mentorship programs can help inspire more teachers to remain with their schools.

During a March 29 press conference Rep. Hans Dunshee (D-44) and House Majority Leader Rep. Pat Sullivan (D-47) touted $7 million included in the 2015-17 state supplemental budget to fund programs such as Beginning Education Support Team (BEST) Program which create mentorships between new and experienced teachers.

The state could also better attract starting teachers by offering moving cost compensation and creating a more centralized teacher recruitment process that makes it easier for applicants to apply to multiple schools.

Those were just two of several recommendations made by PESB.

Taking Inventory Of Basic Ed Spending A Priority

Another challenge for the task force, tied to its core task of ramping up state support for basic ed, will be figuring out how much local school district money currently goes toward that end.

This month the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) will start negotiations with a vendor to gather school district financial information in June and July, according to WSIPP Interim Director Annie Pennucci.

Separating basic education and supplemental spending won’t be easy because districts are currently given flexibility in how and where they can use state funds.

That’s according to Fiscal Analyst Jessica Harrell with the Office of Program Research (OPR) who testified during the task force’s meeting.

Need To Improve The Enrollment Data Forecasting

Testifying at the May task force hearing, Wallace also recommended the state directly supply school districts with the data to make enrollment forecasts. Right now districts collect the data themselves. These forecasts determine how many teachers school districts need to hire and consequently how much state funding they can expect for basic education.

Although student enrollment is stable at a state level it varies greatly by district, said Wallace. More accurate forecasts would lead to more stable state funding estimates and allow districts to make hiring decisions earlier in the year, said Wallace.

However, some task force members are wary of crafting solutions to problems that ultimately can only get fixed at a local district level. This and other unknown facts make it “hard for the state to have a meaningful impact” said Sen. John Braun (R-20).

While they need to find a way to have teacher compensation better reflect cost of living differences around the state “we should be careful not to jump to a single obvious solution,” he added.

Either way, determining state-wide teacher compensation will be “one of the biggest struggles” for the state legislature to figure out next year, said Sullivan (D-47) at the March 29 press conference.

In addition to Braun and Sullivan the task force consists of senators Ann Rivers (R-18), Christine Rolfes (D-23) and Andy Billig (D-3). House members include representatives Kristine Lytton (D-40), Chad Magendanz (R-5) and Norma Smith (R-10).


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