October 10, 2017

Looking at Leadership to Combat Teacher Turnover and Sustain School Improvement

This is the third in a series of blog posts and resources to offer lessons and reflections for school leaders, district officials, and education policymakers using data and stories from the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative. The series is supported by a grant from the McKnight Foundation.

Photo by Eric E. Castro via Flickr

In recent blog posts, I’ve been looking at the impact of teacher turnover on school improvement efforts and ways schools, states, and districts can address this challenge. But what about turnover in leaders, such as principals, district leaders, and superintendents? Leaders can have a huge impact on the culture, priorities, and strategies of their schools and districts. Recent studies have found that principals had a significant effect on teachers’ overall job satisfaction, and that the quality of administrative support could strongly influence teachers’ decisions to leave or stay. Given this reality, efforts to address teacher turnover should not overlook leaders.

Despite the demonstrated importance of strong, stable leadership, leaders in urban schools and districts continue to turn over at high rates. Leadership turnover can be caused by some of the same factors as teacher turnover, such as retirement, performance issues, or competitive offers elsewhere. A single change in leadership can reverberate through a school or district, for better or worse.

Principals in the Pathway Schools Initiative were fairly stable over the course of the Initiative. Of seven schools participating in the Initiative, three retained the same principal throughout all five years of the initiative, and two experienced only one change in principal leadership. This is unusual for high-poverty, urban schools, where principals turn over even faster than teachers. Nationally, 22 percent of public school principals and 27 percent of principals in high-poverty public schools leave annually. Two schools in the initiative, however, experienced more frequent leadership transitions — including one elementary school that had a new principal almost every year of the initiative.

Even when principals stayed the same, changes in district leadership had an impact on schools. All three of the traditional school districts in the Initiative changed superintendents and reorganized district leadership at least once. This is not surprising based on national trends: The average urban superintendent lasts barely three years, and the role of an urban superintendent is increasingly high pressure and politicized. These people were key liaisons between the Initiative partners, schools, and districts, and every time a district leader changed, it took time for their successors to build working relationships and learn about the Initiative.

Churn in district leadership is also frequently accompanied by changes in district strategies, and teachers and principals in Pathway Schools reported to SRI International evaluators that this sometimes hindered progress at the schools. Especially in the larger districts involved in the Initiative, Pathway Schools had to negotiate for the flexibility to pursue their goals differently from what other elementary schools in their districts were doing. With changes in leadership and accompanying changes in district strategies, this process had to be repeated, creating potential uncertainty and mixed messages for principals and teachers.

A change is leadership isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a district or a school — like teachers, leaders change for all kinds of reasons. Still, districts should take every possible step to retain high-performing and high-potential leaders where they can, and to simultaneously plan for succession and create a pipeline of new leaders from within their staff. Potential solutions to consider include: building a complete district framework for principal talent management, instituting school leader residencies to create effective new leaders, and facilitating smooth transitions with extra support for new leaders. Schools and students shouldn’t start from scratch when leadership changes occur.


October 5, 2017

Local Turnover Challenges Require Locally Tailored Solutions

This is second in a series of blog posts and resources to offer lessons and reflections for school leaders, district officials, and education policymakers using data and stories from the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative. The series is supported by a grant from the McKnight Foundation.

Evidence show that high teacher turnover is hurting long-term improvement efforts in many urban schools, and yet the problem remains. To ensure improvement efforts actually take hold, education leaders at the state, district, and school levels must pay closer attention to teacher turnover, examine its causes within their own local context, and develop strategies that will keep highly effective teachers in schools where they are needed most.

Developing effective strategies to retain great teachers in high-need schools first requires confronting some common misconceptions about teacher turnover. First, there is not a nationwide, generalized teacher shortage, and the profession is not shrinking. In fact, the teaching workforce grew by 13 percent over the past four years, while the student population grew by only two percent. Instead, there are acute teacher shortages in specific geographic areas, districts, and subject areas. Second, while turnover tends to be highest in urban, high-poverty schools, not all high-poverty schools have high turnover, which means this challenge can be overcome. Third, higher turnover rates in high-poverty schools are not primarily because of students’ needs. Teachers who leave their jobs because of dissatisfaction often rank organizational factors in schools — such as administrative support, salaries, lack of time, and lack of faculty influence in school decisions — higher than student factors when explaining their decision to leave.

A local program in Minnesota’s Twin Cities is an interesting case study for turnover variation. Minnesota’s teacher workforce is growing overall, though not as much as national trends: Minnesota teachers grew by 5.8 percent in the past seven years, compared with 3.2 percent growth in the number of students. But, like national trends, in many geographic areas and teaching specialty areas, hiring and retaining effective teachers can be extremely difficult. In the first post in this series, I looked at a subset of elementary schools in Minnesota’s Twin Cities that participated in the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative. These schools’ populations included high concentrations of students who are low-income (89%), students of color (91%), and dual language learners (50%). As I summarized, teacher turnover varied from year to year and between schools. Even within the small sample of the Pathway schools, some schools had little to no turnover some years, or turnover on par with state averages. The relationship between teacher turnover and student achievement was inconsistent, nevertheless, turnover affected school improvement efforts. 

The chart below, from the Minnesota Department of Education Teacher Supply/Demand report, can give some very broad ideas of why teachers leave the teaching profession or move to another school district in Minnesota, but it provides a limited picture because it does not include teachers who change schools within their districts or change roles within their schools. Moreover, teachers’ reasons for leaving likely look very different in the high-poverty, urban elementary schools in the Pathway Schools Initiative than they do statewide.

Some of the most common reasons for leaving, according to the data available here, are personal reasons, retirement, and interdistrict competition. 40 percent of teachers leave for “personal,” or “unknown” reasons. National data suggest common “personal reasons” could include things like caring for one’s own children or dissatisfaction with school leaders and school culture. Not all these challenges can be solved completely at the school or district level, but some can. Some promising solutions, drawn mostly from national examples, and inspired by conversations with stakeholders involved in the Initiative, are:

  • District Policy Incentives: It’s important for larger districts to consider how their staffing policies can impact teacher assignment and transfers, especially for high-need schools. Teacher contracts and district policies can sometimes encourage teachers to transfer schools within a district, prioritize transfers and placements based on seniority with no input from principals, or set up incentives for effective teachers to transfer away from high-poverty schools. Different district policies and contracts could account for some of the turnover differences among the Pathway schools.
  • School Strategy, Culture, and Leadership: School culture, school strategy, and school leadership are huge contributors to teachers’ job satisfaction in any school. District and school leaders need strategies and tools to track the experiences that teachers and students have in schools and identify implications for turnover, student achievement, and improvement efforts. Taking surveys of school climate or culture offer one way to uncover problems before they cause turnover. The Initiative required participating districts to use the 5Essentials school culture survey across all their schools — and these revealed a wide range of teacher satisfaction and experiences. These results could open up a dialogue that gets to the heart of some stubborn turnover challenges.
  • Targeted Incentives: 16 percent of Minnesota teachers leave their jobs for a teaching job in another school district. Minnesota district hiring leaders say salaries and a competitive teacher job market are their top barriers to teacher retention. To address this challenge, other district leaders could consider various kinds of performance-based pay structures and targeted incentives to retain high-performing teachers in high-need schools and subjects. Action is especially needed to recruit and retain highly effective teachers in hard-to-staff roles, like special education teachers and specialists in teaching English language learners.
  • Hiring and Induction Supports: Hiring and induction supports can be key to breaking cycles of high turnover. Evidence from other school districts suggests that induction supports for newly hired teachers can increase student achievement and improve retention, and in recent years many large districts have reformed their hiring practices to put more decision-making power at the school level.

There won’t be just one solution for teacher turnover in the Pathway Schools, or other schools struggling with teacher retention. But, to move forward, school and district leaders must better understand reasons for turnover and target appropriate solutions, including, but not limited to, targeted incentives; hiring supports; district policies; and school strategy, culture, and leadership, with a strong grounding in school-by-school data.


Some Exciting Hires and Promotions

Announcements of new hires and promotions are some of my favorite blog posts to write, because I get to showcase the talent on our team and celebrate our common purpose and passion. New hires also mean we’re continuing to build a nonprofit where we are all proud to work.

Today is no different. We’re excited to announce two promotions on our leadership team:

Allison Crean Davis has been promoted to partner on the Policy and Thought Leadership team, and will lead our growing work around educational program evaluation.

Ali Fuller is now a principal on the Strategic Advising team and will continue to work on — and lead — a range of strategy, business planning, and organizational effectiveness projects.


We’re also pleased to announce two new hires:

Steven Purcell joined us in July as our new chief of staff. He will lead operations and human capital work, including continuing to build strong organizational systems and culture. Prior to Bellwether, Steve worked with the KIPP Foundation, Los Angeles Unified School District, and San Francisco Unified School District.

Tresha Ward is joining us later this month as senior adviser for academic strategy, supporting CMOs and districts as they assess their academic strategies to improve student outcomes. Tresha previously held roles at the KIPP Foundation, KIPP NYC, KIPP Houston, and the Houston Independent School District.

Please join me in congratulating our team for their extraordinary commitment, and help us to welcome our new teammates aboard!


September 29, 2017

Should We Strive for More Generalists and Fewer Specialists in Education?

I’ve been thinking about generalists and specialists lately, and I’m beginning to think that the education field has fetishized specialists and forgotten about the value of generalists.

My thinking on this question has been prodded by a few articles on health care. In January, Atul Gawande published a moving article in The New Yorker about the “herosim of incremental care.” Gawande, a surgeon by training, explains a debate he had with his friend Asaf, an internist, about the relative merits of generalists versus specialists:

[Asaf] showed me studies demonstrating that states with higher ratios of primary-care physicians have lower rates of general mortality, infant mortality, and mortality from specific conditions such as heart disease and stroke. Other studies found that people with a primary-care physician as their usual source of care had lower subsequent five-year mortality rates than others, regardless of their initial health. In the United Kingdom, where family physicians are paid to practice in deprived areas, a ten-per-cent increase in the primary-care supply was shown to improve people’s health so much that you could add ten years to everyone’s life and still not match the benefit…. Further, the more complex a person’s medical needs are the greater the benefit of primary care.

Gawande spends the rest of the article trying to figure out how this works, and he spends time visiting his friend’s clinic:

“It’s the relationship,” they’d say. I began to understand only after I noticed that the doctors, the nurses, and the front-desk staff knew by name almost every patient who came through the door. Often, they had known the patient for years and would know him for years to come. In a single, isolated moment of care for, say, a man who came in with abdominal pain, Asaf looked like nothing special. But once I took in the fact that patient and doctor really knew each other—that the man had visited three months earlier, for back pain, and six months before that, for a flu—I started to realize the significance of their familiarity.

For one thing, it made the man willing to seek medical attention for potentially serious symptoms far sooner, instead of putting it off until it was too late. There is solid evidence behind this. Studies have established that having a regular source of medical care, from a doctor who knows you, has a powerful effect on your willingness to seek care for severe symptoms. This alone appears to be a significant contributor to lower death rates.

Observing the care, I began to grasp how the commitment to seeing people over time leads primary-care clinicians to take an approach to problem-solving that is very different from that of doctors, like me, who provide mainly episodic care.

The summer issue of The Washington Monthly gave more evidence in the case for generalists through Samuel Jay Keyser’s personal story: a sophisticated surgical procedure saved his life, but a team of generalists really helped him take steps toward a productive life.

I find these arguments compelling.

Both Keyser and Gawande point to the growing body of research that health care patients are often better off with a close relationship to one generalist than they are to a poorly coordinated network of specialists. We see this especially in end-of-life care. Patients with hospice and palliative care live longer and cost less to keep alive than those who receive the usual cocktail of specialists and hospitalizations.

Education, however, keeps trending in the opposite direction. There’s been an ever-increasing push to ensure teachers are given specialized training and licenses to fill specialty roles within schools. As a field, we’ve been operating as if more and more specialization will be a good thing, but hardly any of this is linked to actual outcomes for kids. Still, that hasn’t stopped us.

There’s very little evidence behind the specialist trend, and one study I’m aware of points in the opposite direction. When Houston experimented with creating specialized teacher roles in elementary schools, the generalist elementary school teachers who spent all day with their students helped their students learn more than their peers who specialized in only one subject. The author of the study theorized that the generalist teachers who spent more time with their students could better tailor their instruction. We also see this in other studies of teacher credentials, where deeper content knowledge is far from a guarantee of more effective teaching.

To be sure, there are some elements of schooling where having a specialist is clearly better. If one of my children was being tested for a hearing or learning disability, I’d want a specialist to perform the test. But from my conversations in the education space, I’m worried we’ve taken this concept too far and applied it to everything a school does. Whether that’s a good thing or not is worth further investigation.


September 26, 2017

All Parents Have High Hopes: A Recap

At Bellwether, we spent last week talking about family engagement strategies and busting the myth that poor parents don’t invest in their kids’ education.

Just in time, new data released today by the National Center for Education Statistics reveals that parents across income brackets have high hopes for their kids, and that they match that expectation with action.

For context, here’s a recap of our conversation:

Day 1 // September 19

  • Justin Trinidad writes that limited English proficient parents are underserved but not complacent about their kids’ education
  • Kirsten Schmitz interviews classroom teacher Christian Martínez-Canchola and offers five ways teachers can engage multilingual families

Day 2 // September 20

  • Melissa Steel King writes about the assumption that parents are only engaged if they come to school events or volunteer

Day 3 // September 21

  • Marnie Kaplan argues that we can learn from the long history of including parent engagement in early childhood education
  • Lynne Graziano urges school leaders to ensure that requests for family involvement are simple, streamlined, and supportive

Day 4 // September 22

  • I interview Bellwether’s own Jeff Schulz to get some pro tips on family engagement strategies and organizational planning
  • Allison Crean Davis stresses that the lack of equal opportunities for kids of different backgrounds means that schools have to work to live up to parent expectations

You can read the whole series here!