District Trendline

The revolutionary retention strategy of investing in beginning teachers

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Public school teachers in the first four years of their career are leaving their schools or the teaching profession altogether at a rate that is 40% higher than the average public school teacher, according to NCES' Beginning Teacher Longitudinal Study. This is hardly news; research has repeatedly documented that turnover rates are highest for the youngest, least experienced teachers. Not only is this turnover expensive for districts, but more importantly, it negatively impacts student achievement, disproportionately so on those most disadvantaged.

In this District Trendline, we examine the extent to which beginning teachers are receiving any form of compensating differentials (i.e., additional salary raises to offset "undesirable job characteristics") that would help increase retention during the most vulnerable first few years of teaching. We analyze policies surrounding teacher compensation during the early years, together with the tenure practices of 124 large school districts across the country: the 100 largest districts plus the largest district in each state. We find that:

  • A significant portion of districts offer less-than-competitive salary paths for beginning teachers, with one fourth of the districts in our sample offering starting salaries below $45,000 after adjusting for regional price parity, or the regional differences in the cost of living. This is improved little by low annual salary growth rates, which are less than 1% annually in the first three years of teaching.

  • Some districts appear to trade the promise of tenure or job security for compensation: 13 districts in our sample offer tenure only after two years of experience, and almost all of them (11) have low salary growth rates of less than 1% during the early teaching years.

  • Some districts defer investing in novice teachers until after they have attained tenure, a defensible strategy provided that once awarded, a teacher's tenure status is also paired with a sizable pay increase. On average, in districts that offer tenure, teacher salaries grow at an annual rate of 1% before tenure, and 2.6% immediately after the tenure award.

  • Lack of tenure appears to boost early salary growth. Total salary growth over the course of three years in the districts with tenure was 3.4%, compared to 4.7% over the course of three years in the districts that did not offer tenure.

How are beginning teachers compensated?

In the last documented year for all of our sample districts (2018-19), the average first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree earned about $45,000/year (adjusted by regional cost of living). As a comparison, the average starting salary for individuals with a bachelor's degree in the "Class of 2018" stood at $50,004, according to an NCES report.

Over the first three years of teaching, salaries for teachers in our sample grew on average 1.3% annually for a total of 4%. However, this average masks significant variations: 42 districts (35%) limited raises over those three years to less than 2%. In 18 of these districts, the total salary growth for the first three years of a teacher's career was zero.

The following graph illustrates the different combinations of starting salaries for teachers with a bachelor's degree (adjusted for regional price parity) and total salary growth over the first three years. The horizontal line is set at the average growth rate, while the vertical line represents the average salary. Districts in the bottom-left quadrant offer their beginning teachers not only below average salaries, but also below-average salary growth projections. Conversely, districts in the top-right quadrant offer their beginning teachers both above-average salaries and above-average salary growth opportunities.

Boston Public Schools is the clear outlier, offering their beginning teachers a starting salary over $55,000 (adjusted for regional price parity) and an annual salary growth near 6% leading up to tenure and afterwards. 

This stagnant growth for many beginning teachers has important implications on salary satisfaction, as it is no secret that better paid teachers tend to leave less. A higher degree of salary satisfaction either via starting salary or salary growth is a retention strategy that districts might want to explore more closely.

Exploring the trade-off between salary and job security

An analysis of the National Teacher and Principal Survey (NTPS) results reported that 55% of all teachers surveyed were not satisfied with their salary. However, this percentage increased to 61% in districts that did not offer tenure. This appears to support the notion that the traditional trade-off between job security and monetary returns documented in multiple industries is also present in the public teaching arena.

Most districts have tenure policies. In fact, less than 20% of the districts in our sample offer no tenure, and teachers in most other districts qualify for tenure after three years. However, according to Educators for Excellence's Voices from the Classroom survey, 72% of teachers would be willing to trade tenure for higher salaries.

Tenure can be a more budget-friendly policy, understandably preferred when districts' budgets are tight. For some districts, however, tenure appears to be negatively related to the degree to which districts invest monetarily in their novice teachers. Research indicates that districts in states with longer probationary periods offer higher wages as a way to compensate for the extended evaluative period. NCTQ data in the following graph confirms this trend, and shows the relationship between minimum years of experience required for tenure and average annual salary growth during the years before tenure.

On average, the longer the wait until tenure, the higher the salary growth that occurs during that waiting period. In Manchester School District, for example, a minimum of five years of experience is required for tenure, and their average salary growth before tenure is 3.7%, while in Burlington School District, tenure requires a minimum of two years of teaching experience, and the average salary growth before tenure is 1.9%. Many districts offer annual salary increases below 1%, with some at the 0% level or very close to it, and those are mainly districts that offer tenure the soonest.

Of note is the fact that the total salary growth during the first three years in the districts in our sample that offered tenure was 3.4%, compared to 4.7% in the districts that did not offer tenure.

Investing in human capital from the start

Opting for tenure as a retention tool rather than compensation risks losing potential talent in the pre-tenure years, with all the costs associated with it. The following graph illustrates to what extent districts that offer tenure invest in their teachers before they attain tenure, and the year immediately after tenure is awarded. Districts to the left of the diagonal line give their beginning teachers higher salary increases while they await for tenure status. Only nine districts in our sample do so, while districts to the right of the diagonal line reward their teachers with higher salary increases only after they attain tenure.


On average, the annual salary growth pre-tenure is 1%, and this increases to 2.6% in the year immediately after the tenure award.

Reserving the larger monetary investment in novice teachers until after they have attained tenure is a defensible strategy provided the award of tenure brings a sizable increase in pay. Concerning, however, is that of the 19 districts in our sample that offer zero salary growth before tenure (15%), only six provide an above average salary increase at the tenure mark. The remainder of districts appear to try to use tenure alone as a retention tool—independent of any significant salary increase either before or after the granting of tenure.

Key takeaways

Eric Hanushek et. al., find in their 2002 paper, "Why Public Schools Lose Teachers" that on average, of the teachers who move out of their schools, it is beginning teachers who improve their salaries the most, which suggests that low salaries are a key factor in beginning teacher mobility. Beginning teachers are also at a disadvantage when it comes to classroom assignments, which together with other hard-to-uproot policies, such as seniority-based layoffs, increase the common feelings of job instability associated with a teacher's first few years in the classroom.

There are many policies available to state, district, and school leaders that undergird effective teacher retention tools. Particularly important are those policies that allow for compensating differentials, considering that public school teachers' salaries are typically determined by collective bargaining or public policy, and therefore lack the flexibility to adjust to the pressures of the job and the teacher labor market.

Therefore, where salaries are not determined by the market, it is crucial to establish policies that 1) allow for districts to invest in their teachers from the start with adequate compensation, and 2) do not replace fair wages for tenure, which does not allow for an appropriate response to teacher labor supply and demand pressures.