Monday, January 1, 2018

Tackling Teacher Turnover

Despite programs for teacher retention, an increasing number of elementary educators are leaving Austin ISD schools.  

By Rachel Rascoe, Fall 2017

This past August, some Austin area elementary school students returned to as many as half of their school’s teachers replaced with new faces.

While many Texas Education Agency reports focus on attrition, a value that only accounts for resignations and retirements, some newer education studies examine the total amount of teachers lost every year. Calculated from TEA data, this overall turnover rate accounts for all teachers who either resigned, retired, moved to a non-teaching position or transferred to another school within the district, representing the total percentage of teachers who left each campus.

Huriya Jabbar, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin, examines the effects of teacher turnover in urban schools across the country. She said it’s important to look further than the attrition values reported by the districts to understand the context of each campus.

“When you lose 20 or 30 or 50 percent of your staff in some cases, you’re having to re-hire a lot of new people. We’re trying to understand how that breaks up social networks and trust in the organization, and how might that impede school improvement efforts,” Jabbar said. “For example, if you’re trying to implement a new program and all the people who have been trained leave the next year, you’re going to have some disruption to your organization.”

A campus turnover rate of 63 percent topped the elementary charts for last year’s 2016 school year, with an average of 25 percent of teachers leaving at all AISD elementary schools.

That average elementary rate has been overall rising steadily over the past few years. The six percent increase from 2015 to 2016 marks the largest jump in the past five years.
Click this link to view interactive

Over the past five years, Webb Primary School, Sims Elementary and Campbell Elementary have all had instances of losing half or more of their teaching staff. For all AISD elementary schools, the past few years show an overall increase in average teacher turnover. 
Source: Texas Education Agency

Studies reveal a laundry list of reasons why teachers may choose to leave particular schools or the profession altogether. Working conditions, administrative support, salary and location have all been shown to play a part.

“Most of the teachers that I talked to were committed to working in urban schools with some low-income students, but they didn’t feel like they had the support to do that work well,” Jabbar said of her national turnover research. “They didn’t have the leadership support or the training or ongoing professional development, and these resources play a big role. It’s things like whether there was a strong curriculum in place, or if they had to make that from scratch.”

In AISD’s newest teacher exit survey for the 2015 school year, the most popular district-wide response for why teachers left was “seeking better working conditions,” followed by “seeking higher salary, or benefits.” Although the district’s $47,349 average salary for beginning teachers is slightly above the state average, the pay grade also faces rising housing costs in many Austin neighborhoods.

Rather than quitting the teaching profession, over half of the exiting teachers planned to work for another public or private school after leaving AISD. Of those moving into new teaching and non-teaching jobs alike, 68% perceived the ability to balance personal life and work as better in their next position. “Seeking less workload or stress” was the most commonly chosen as the most important reason for leaving.


Heidi Langan is the Austin President of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, a statewide teachers’ union. She has been the music teacher at Galindo Elementary in AISD for the past 17 years.

In general, Langan said teachers follow changes in turnover from year to year through observing new hires and school culture, rather than being given the specific numbers. She attributes her South Austin school’s below-average turnover to strong administrative leadership, which helps maintain a familiar community of teachers.

“If you have teachers who are together for a long period of time, they’ve got their lessons planned and they’re ready to greet that new group of students that come through the grade level. It’s just going to go very smoothly,” Langan said. “If you constantly have new people coming in, it’s a learning curve again every year. I think the more consistency that you have in general at the school, the more that’s going to benefit the students.”

Webb Primary School, an AISD program serving kindergarten through 4th grade students, had the last year’s highest turnover rate at 63.20%. Launched in 2013, Webb Primary is a collection of portables located on and feeding into the Webb Middle School campus.

The highest teacher loss for 2016 among conventional elementary school programs fell on Sims at 50%. In previous school years, Campbell Elementary topped the list for both the 2015 and 2014, losing over 60 percent of its teaching staff.

Click this link to view interactive
Schools shown in red fell above the district elementary average of 25.16% turnover for the 2016 school year. Schools shown in green fell below this average. Select or search for an AISD elementary school campus on the map to see its changes in teacher turnover over the past five years. Select Title I designation to filter schools by their Title I status.
Source: Texas Education Agency

Langan said teachers entering the profession for the first time face their own unique challenges, with many overwhelmed by behavioral issues and the paperwork side of teaching, factors echoed in research studies. Her local ATPE chapter supports paid mentorship programs as a central strategy in combating attrition.

“There’s so much information coming at these new teachers, but then it’s like, well how do I even enter grades? I have a student that I’m having trouble with misbehaving in class. How do I document that and get help for that student?“ Langan said. “It’s all those kinds of processes that can be so overwhelming. If they’re not getting enough support on how to do that stuff, that will make them leave the profession.”

The district currently offers an official mentorship program for educators in their first and second years of teaching, which Langan has participated in twice as a mentor. She received a stipend for meeting with and supporting her mentee, as well as attending trainings, group meetings and submitting a log of their activities.

“The best ways to teach new teachers in the profession is having experienced teachers mentor them and building that relationship,” Langan said of her experiences with entering educators. “Really having somebody you can go to is super important.”


Another buzzword in battling teacher loss, induction, references new teacher training and introductory programs. AISD has their own four-day induction program required for all new teachers, including district-wide and campus-specific orientation. According to the AISD website, the three “constructs” for the introductory week are curriculum and instruction, learning environment, and lastly standards and assessment.

Charis Anderson is the director of communications at Deans for Impact, a consortium of 18 reform-minded deans of colleges of education. He argues the importance of pointed teacher education to get educators ready for the specific challenges they’ll face in district classrooms.

“We believe it’s helpful to create better alignment and communication between educator-preparation programs and K-12 districts,” Anderson said via email. “This can help educator-preparation programs understand more about districts’ and school’s needs [and] better prepare teachers for roles in those districts and schools, which, in turn, could potentially promote teacher retention.”

Angela Valenzuela, an educational leadership and policy professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wants to help retain teachers in struggling Austin schools by developing “career ladders” to leadership positions. She thinks these programs could also help create administrators who understand the needs of schools with large ESL student populations.

“Career ladders would help keep to teachers in the district when they see that they can make a difference. This contributes not only towards retention, but towards more people within the district having that greater understanding of how to educate a diverse demographic that also is predominantly Spanish speaking,” Valenzuela said. “Without leadership positions, they won’t have the voice to make the kind of changes that need to occur if we want to be culturally responsive.”

Last year, 28 percent of AISD’s students were English language learners. For elementary bilingual education teachers, the district currently offers a signing supplement of $1,500 and a yearly stipend of $2,500.

AISD also currently provides a leadership development program, built into a compensation system called “Professional Pathways for Teachers.” The program lets teachers permanently increase their salaries by earning points for things like their number of years with the district, good performance appraisals and participation in optional professional development projects, including specific leadership pathways.

Some campuses with higher percent economically disadvantaged students, as well as students in bilingual and special education programs, make teachers eligible for more points. The district website specifically states that these bonus points for certain schools are “designed to provide recruitment and retention support to campuses.”


Within AISD elementary campuses, schools with higher rates of at-risk students, economically disadvantaged students and English language learners generally have higher teacher turnover.

Schools that lose a larger portion of teachers also generally employ less experienced educators, created by a revolving door of new teachers entering and exiting some campuses.

Click here to view interactive
In Texas Education Agency reports, a student is identified as being “at risk” of dropping out of school based on state-defined criteria. A student is defined as “economically disadvantaged” if he or she is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch or other public assistance. The Texas Education Code defines an “English language learner“ as a student whose primary language is other than English and whose English language skills are such that the student has difficulty performing ordinary classwork in English.
Source: Texas Education Agency, Texas Academic Performance Reports for 2016-2017

Click this link to view interactive
Title I schools are defined as campuses with a student population of at least 40 percent low-income. For the 2016 school year, Title I schools, on average, lost 27 percent of their teachers, while non-Title I schools lost only 20 percent. This year, 60 out of the 84 elementary schools in AISD are Title I. 
Source: Texas Education Agency
Valenzuela’s most recent book, “Growing Critically Conscious Teachers,” focuses on the potential of “grow your own educator” programs. By supporting a pipeline of recruited students from local high schools and universities to teach at schools in the community, she said districts can build more devoted educators and administrators.

“Teachers that want to teach in their communities are more likely to stay as teachers in those communities for good amounts of time,” Valenzuela said. “They could conceivably end up working in the same schools or even classrooms that they were students in, so you’re tapping in to a very different kind of motivation. That’s what a lot of us are pushing for.”

The University of North Texas at Dallas recently began building a similar “superhighway” for recruitment and education of bilingual teachers as part of its HEB-funded its Emerging Teachers Institute.


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