TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

Saving our best teachers: The urgency of retention amid layoffs

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The teaching profession may be in for a rough year ahead, but even without the looming layoffs as federal emergency funds come to an end, school districts are not focusing enough on keeping their best talent. And teachers themselves seem bearish on their profession.

A new Educators for Excellence (E4E) survey reports that teachers are less likely to see themselves staying in the teaching profession for their entire career (a nine percentage point drop from 2022). Only 16 percent say they would recommend the teaching profession to others. The new data raises concerns: The notion that teachers themselves would rarely recommend the next generation fill their shoes is foreboding when it comes to attracting, recruiting, and retaining a diverse and effective teacher workforce, especially for the highest-poverty schools.

The impending teacher layoffs, coupled with these survey results, offer an opportunity for school districts and states to focus more on attracting and retaining the teachers who serve students best. In other aspects of society, this is a no-brainer. If a baseball coach has to cut several players, he's going to do everything he can to keep the highest performers. It should be the same in teaching. When making these painful staffing cuts, districts must prioritize teacher performance and the needs of students.

In the 2012 "Irreplaceables" report, TNTP described these highest-performing teachers as ignored and under-valued. Twelve years later, we have yet to make retention of these irreplaceable teachers a top priority. If states and districts were serious about keeping a diverse, effective teacher workforce, they would set goals and report progress toward those goals publicly. Yet NCTQ found only 28 states report on teacher effectiveness at the state level, and only 22 states do so at the school level—overlooking one of the most important aspects of promoting equity in student learning and leaving unanswered questions about which teachers are staying and which are leaving. When we looked at the state of the states in improving teacher diversity, we found only a handful have set public goals for increasing the diversity of their teacher workforce, and few states collect and publish data on teachers broken out by race and linguistic diversity, making it nearly impossible to assess their progress and challenges.

It's no big mystery what will attract and retain teachers. Teachers themselves say higher salaries, better benefits, and opportunities to earn more for working in hard-to-staff schools or subject areas would be a good start. And it's not just their opinions—plenty of research backs that up.

There is some good news here: In a new NCTQ analysis of compensation in large districts across the country, the percentage of large districts offering differentiated pay both for teachers working in hard-to-staff-subjects and high-need schools has more than doubled since 2017. However, the bad news is that only 17 districts in our sample offer additional compensation that could reach the research-recommended threshold of $5,000. The upshot is that while more districts are putting differentiated compensation options into contracts, the financial increases may not be meaningful enough to matter to teachers.

Being strategic about teacher benefits could also help. For example, few districts offer paid parental leave. To keep strong teachers, we need to stop making them choose between their own families' wellbeing and their students' wellbeing. NCTQ found that less than a quarter of districts in our sample (27 of 148 districts) provide paid parental leave for teachers beyond their earned sick days. In districts that do offer paid leave, the amount varies widely, from one day to five months, with most districts offering less than 31 days (at varying levels of pay and differing eligibility). What has been surprising to me about this report is not the data; it's the public response: Many people I have talked to have been surprised to learn that teachers rarely receive paid parental leave and surprised to learn the lengths many teachers take to stockpile their sick days or try to plan their pregnancies in the summer.

Ultimately, supporting and strengthening our teachers is how we support and strengthen our students. As districts face impending fiscal cuts and teacher layoffs, states and districts should take this opportunity to reexamine their approaches to attracting and retaining teachers—especially those who do the most good for students. They should use data and evidence to drive their decisions and redesign their compensation and incentives to better attract and retain the best teachers where they are needed most. They should pilot new models for structuring classrooms, defining teachers' roles in ways that align to improved outcome goals for kids (more on that from NCTQ coming soon, so stay tuned). And they should consider how to structure benefits best aligned to what teachers say attracts—and keeps—them.

States and districts undoubtedly have a hard road ahead, but prioritizing attracting and retaining the best teachers, our most valuable in-school asset for students, will pay dividends. And then more teachers may encourage the next generation to join them.