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Help Wanted

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For an alarming number of new teachers,the school gates have turned into a revolvingdoor. Here’s how technology can assistdistricts in addressing the reasons forthe rampant turnover.

Help WantedWhen Gabe Soumakian joined Burbank Unified School District (CA) two years ago as assistant superintendent for thehuman resources department, collecting data about teacherturnover was not a high priority. Shortly after his arrival, contractnegotiations opened, and representatives of the local teachersassociation cited high attrition rates as a rationale for severalexpensive bargaining points. Soumakian began researching thefigures provided by the teachers association, and he found thatthe district did not have the data to either verify or refute statementsabout teacher turnover in the district.

Today, officials in BUSD, on the outskirts of Los Angeles, are getting a handle on which teachers are leaving the district and why, all thanks to a FileMaker Pro database Soumakian developed and is now using for data collection, aggregation, and analysis. "It was difficult at first," he says, "but I wanted to be able to discuss the real reasons behind teacher turnover in this district and find cost-effective solutions based on our needs."

Soumakian’s efforts, while not enough to arrest teacher turnover, at least are an attempt at understanding its sources. It’s a first step in the difficult work of reversing the astonishing rate at which new teachers are quitting the profession. Expert estimates anticipate that nearly half of this year’s new hires will leave teaching within the next three years. Half.

In addition to the direct, negative impact that teacher flight has on student achievement, districts are waking up to the reality that turnover on this scale is costing them thousands, even tens of thousands, of dollars for every teacher that must be replaced. In districts where the annual rate of teacher turnover surpasses the average for student dropouts (roughly 30 percent nationally), it doesn’t require much financial acumen to realize that the cost of low teacher retention quickly eats up a hefty chunk of the budget.

What can be done to stem this drain on already limited resources, and where can technology help? Collecting, analyzing, and reporting the data, as Soumakian is doing for Burbank USD, are just initial moves leading to an even more important question: How will this information be used to reduce teacher turnover and the associated costs?

A Call to Action

Understanding today’s issues requires some background information. The rise in teacher attrition, begun in the late 1980s, has conventionally been attributed to the aging Boomer generation and a lack of qualified teacher candidates. However, the data tells otherwise. Retirement does account for a certain amount of turnover, but new teachers are leaving en masse. In fact, according to Tom Carroll, president of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, "The number of fully certified teachers who are in the workforce but not in classrooms exceeds the number of teaching vacancies in the country." Thus, the real problem: Teachers have opted out of the education system.

BYTESIZE

All reports from the National Commission on Teaching andAmerica's Future, including the recent June study, can befound here.

As early as 2002, Carroll wrote in an NCTAF report: "Our inability to support high-quality teaching in many of our schools is driven not by too few teachers coming in, but by too many going out….We need to balance our efforts to prepare high quality teachers with strong strategies to support good teaching in our schools." In January 2003, NCTAF published "No Dream Denied: A Pledge to America’s Children," launching a series of projects and studies focused on teacher turnover. The commission’s most recent report, "The Cost of Teacher Turnover in Five School Districts: A Pilot Study," was released in June.

Carroll hopes that this latest study will capture school leaders’ full attention, because he says it "uses actual school district data. Earlier attempts to nail down the costs [associated with teacher attrition] used formulas based on industry standards for attrition. Although the resulting estimated costs of teacher attrition were alarmingly high, policymakers discounted the figures." The June report is based on information from five districts: Chicago Public Schools, Milwaukee Public Schools (WI), Granville County Schools (NC), and Jemez Valley Public Schools and Santa Rosa Consolidated Schools in New Mexico. The study sites were selected to include a broad range of demographic factors spanning two large urban districts, a countywide suburban district, and two small rural districts.

The report presents several key findings:

  1. The costs of teacher turnover are substantial. The estimates for the cost of replacing just one teacher ranged from $4,366 (Jemez Valley) to $17,872 (Chicago).
  2. Teacher turnover costs can be identified, calculated, and analyzed. These include but are not limited to: recruitment and advertising; incentives (such as signing bonuses); administrative processing; and training for new hires.
  3. Teacher turnover undermines at-risk schools. In both Milwaukee and Chicago, higher teacher turnover was correlated to schools where performance is low and poverty rates are high. The turnover means these schools expend scarce dollars on training new staff each year.
  4. At-risk schools could recoup funds by investing in teacher retention. An up-front investment in effective induction and support programs for teachers produces significant savings.
  5. District data systems are not designed to control the costs of turnover. However, systems can be modified to enable district officials to collect the data they need to make informed decisions about turnover costs.

Ongoing Support

In the majority of cases, new-teacher attrition is not chalked up to poor career choice. Salary is an issue for some former teachers, but national surveys show that money is not the most critical factor in a teacher’s decision to move on. Rather, the primary culprit is lack of support—from administration, principals, and other teachers. The problem is particularly present in those same schools with high poverty rates and low student achievement where teacher turnover is most acute. In surveys reported in NCTAF’s "No Dream Denied," poor administrative support and lack of faculty influence are identified as the two leading factors for teacher turnover in high-poverty urban schools.

NEW TEACHERS, CLICK HERE

A SPRUCED-UP WEBSITE CAN BE A DISTRICT'SMOST EFFECTIVE, CHEAPEST RECRUITING TOOL.

It's one thing to simply create a pool of teachers to fill a list of availablejobs. It's another thing altogether to match highly qualified professionalsto the positions and schools they are ideally suited for.Placing print classified ads or traveling great distances to attendrecruiting fairs is neither cheap nor necessarily the best strategy forfinding qualified job candidates.

Redesigned or expanded district websites have become a cheaperalternative to jumping on a plane. These websites are informationhubs for prospective teachers, providing up-to-date, attractive webpages covering everything from basic questions about the district tovirtual tours of individual school sites and current job listings. In someinstances, district and site personnel also use their sites to expeditethe actual hiring process.

Burbank Unified School District's GabeSoumakianIn addition to implementing a database for teacher information,Burbank Unified School District's (CA) GabeSoumakian (pictured left), assistant superintendentfor the human resources department, is inthe process of giving his district's HR web page aserious overhaul. "It's a work in progress, but we'vemade significant changes in the last 18 months,"he says. When potential employees visit the districtwebsite, they can access current job postings,salary schedules, facts about the district, even a brief tutorial onhow to complete the new online application. "By automating thisprocess," he says, "the principals and I have immediate access to jobapplications, facilitating interviewing and hiring."

NCTAF literature describes three areas where districts can offer support that makes a difference: availability of high quality teaching resources, access to education experts, and ongoing support from peers. This is where technology enters the picture. Used well, web-based tools, such as online teacher communities, provide help in all three areas.

"Once the notion of a collaborative work environment is accepted, technology lends itself very well to making it possible for educators to work together on site or anywhere in the world," says Kathleen Fulton, director of Reinventing Schools for the 21st Century at NCTAF and principal author of the 2005 NCTAF report "Induction Into Learning Communities."

Fulton says that collaboration is the new wave in instruction. "Teaching in isolation is an artifact of the 19th-century industrial model. Before we can transform schools into 21stcentury learning communities, we must recognize that teachers need ongoing opportunities to collaborate with other educators and even their students, to learn and share expertise." Effective induction programs are just one stage in a continuum of collaborative professional development experiences that begin in pre-service programs and extend throughout an educator’s career.

She cites two NCTAF demonstration projects in which online communities play an important role in teacher retention through effective induction practices. The first is the NCTAF/Georgia State University (GSU) Induction Project.

Launched in 2006, it focuses on supporting new teachers in high-minority, low-income schools in metropolitan Atlanta, and includes three critical elements. The first, Cross-Career Learning Communities (CCLCs), is made up of pre-service, new, and experienced teachers and university faculty who meet face-to-face and sometimes online. The second element, the BRIDGE (Building Resources: Induction and Development for Georgia Educators), is an online resource that features peerreviewed articles, websites, and lesson plans. The site also supports online activities for CCLCs. Lastly, pre-service and new teachers regularly reflect on their learning using the Professional Growth Continuum and Checklist self-assessment tool.

The second project, Teachers Learning in Networked Communities, just completed its second year. Participants are located in Denver, Seattle, and Memphis. While each location has modified the program to meet local needs, the use of Tapped In online communities is universal. Tapped In was selected because of its ease of use and flexibility.

Fulton reports that leaders of both projects are learning a great deal about making online communities successful: "Teachers want access to a variety of collaborative opportunities. Some want to engage in synchronous discussions about predetermined topics, while others prefer asynchronous access to online mentors and peers to ask about specific problems. In addition, new teachers often want to maintain connections with former fellow teacher-education students. We need to be able to address all these requests."

The BRIDGE and Tapped In provide frameworks for these activities, but additional support is required. "We are finding that participation increases when activities are tied to specific needs, and when there are extrinsic incentives such as continuing education credit," Fulton says. "It also helps to have good facilitators to keep the group focused and active." (Additional suggestions for successful online communities are available on the NCTAF website.)

Drawing On the Data

Several recommendations have come from NCTAF’s June report. To wit, school districts need to invest in teacher induction and support programs and reexamine their existing data management systems. Designing a meaningful plan for improved data collection and analysis—coupled with solid teacher recruitment, induction, and support programs— requires crossing district departmental lines and including site administrators and teaching staff. A first step for districts is to lay the groundwork to make data-driven decisions about teacher turnover.

Educators have ready access to student data. Yet the study found little consistency in the data collected about individual teachers across the five pilot districts. NCTAF also discovered that it was diffi- cult to access existing data because the information was stored in a variety of databases that were not necessarily compatible. As a result, districts were not making data-driven staffing decisions.

The lack of consistent collection and reporting of teacher data is not confined to these five districts. "Linking Teacher and Student Data to Improve Teacher and Teaching Quality," a report issued in March by the Center for Teaching Quality, identifies lack of teacher data as a widespread problem. And the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence points out that even mandated US Department of Education statelevel reports on highly qualified teachers include discrepancies.

Ultimately, the challenge of consistent data collection and reporting related to teacher turnover may need to be resolved at the state level, but in the meantime school officials must develop local systems for accomplishing this task. "You can’t manage what you can’t measure," says NCTAF’s Carroll. "Every district needs a comprehensive human resources plan that includes a system for record keeping." Steps to take in designing local plans include:

  1. Develop evaluation questions that specify what needs to be known about local attrition patterns and costs. Make certain the questions are specific and measurable. For example: What information is gathered during exit interviews? How are attrition costs specified in the human resources budget?
  2. Identify data elements that can be aggregated and will provide answers to the evaluation questions. Exitinterview data elements to be considered include current assignments, or reasons for leaving the current position. Carroll recommends that school administrators review the Teacher Turnover Cost Calculator available on the NCTAF site to identify appropriate data elements and estimate turnover costs.
  3. Determine how/if existing data collection systems can be used to collect and report teacher data. What’s needed here is for information technology and other district leaders to pool their resources. Hopefully, existing data management systems will fit the bill for this new task. But districts might need to invest in additional data tools to get the job done. This may mean expanding the existing system using add-on modules designed to handle teacher data, or purchasing an entirely new data tool. However, this initial investment will quickly pay for itself if the outcome is a decrease in teacher attrition.

Once the data is gathered, evaluated, and reported, the information can be used to reduce teacher turnover and the associated costs. School districts with high teacher attrition rates simply cannot afford to allow this mass exodus to continue; those "associated costs" are devastating to a district’s bottom line and ultimately damaging to its students. While technology tools are not a panacea, they can be leveraged to support data-driven decisions related to staffing and to strengthen the safety net every new teacher needs to be successful. Fortunately, these tools are readily available to most districts and can be implemented in a timely way.

Above all, Carroll believes, school officials need to be held publicly accountable for teacher turnover and its associated costs. "Teacher turnover is a serious issue," he says. "The public needs to be aware of how attrition impacts schools and what’s being done to lower the rate."

-Susan Brooks-Young is an educationconsultant and author based in LopezIsland, WA, and Vancouver, BC.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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