Tag Archives: talent retention

How Much Do You Know About Rural Education? Part 4: Reversing the Teacher Shortage Trend

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

This concludes Dr. Jared Bigham’s four-part series for Ahead of the Heard amplifying issues facing rural school districts, students, and communities. Read the series in its entirety here, here, and here.

My grandfather used to say, “You’ll sit a long time with your mouth wide open before a fried chicken flies in.” So too goes the work of recruiting and retaining rural teachers across our country, as most young or new teachers increasingly pursue jobs in urban and suburban areas. Many rural schools and districts spent considerable resources and time on this issue before the nationwide teacher shortage began in 2009; it’s a challenge that continues to grow with each passing school year. Whether it’s the competition of pay scales, in vogue fusion restaurants, craft breweries, or strip malls offered in urban or suburban areas, rural districts have started relying on grow-your-own models to meet talent needs.

To be clear, there’s a difference in hiring local and hiring local intentionally through grow-your-own talent strategies. Hiring local means you give Johnny a job because he grew up in the community, left and earned a teaching certification, and now wants to move back home to work. This scenario is OK if Johnny is, or has the potential to be, a good educator. But the scenario also represents the double-edged sword of rural human capital plans that hire based on tribalism vs. talent acquisition. The problem arises if Johnny is only a mediocre educator, because in most cases he’ll be in the classroom until he’s ready to retire…or becomes the principal. Unfortunately, this is a common practice in rural schools, whether it’s in response to a sense of loyalty to community members or to the pressing need to fill positions.

Please don’t misunderstand me: it’s not that rural communities can’t or shouldn’t hire local. It’s that the most successful rural schools are meeting their hiring challenges through intentional, proactive strategies of identifying local talent, recruiting that talent through various incentives, and retaining that talent by cultivating their potential as educators. 

A great example of this is Globe Unified School District in Arizona, led by Superintendent Jerry Jennex. As recently as five years ago, his district faced teacher shortages and a high turnover rate before implementing a talent pipeline and retention strategy. His team identified talented, local non-certified staff working in the field of education as paraprofessionals and Head Start workers, and supported them in obtaining a traditional teacher certification through the satellite campus of a partnering university. Globe USD also prioritized alternative licensure pathways, which make up approximately a quarter of its districtwide K-12 teaching staff.

For prospective teachers taking the alternative certification route, Jennex said they, “Identify people that have the knowledge and technical skills; then we help them with the pedagogy side.” “Our district vision statement is Capturing Hearts and Empowering Minds. This is how we approach our recruitment of community members to be teachers. We want them to feel a connection to our district, and we will take care of supporting them on the instruction side,” he added. In addition, Globe USD has an innovative strategy for student teachers they want to keep in the district. The district pays student teachers 50% of a first-year teacher’s salary, covers health insurance, allows them to participate in the state retirement system, and counts their student teaching as one year of service.   

Jennex said they also put just as much effort into retention as they do recruitment. His team wants to support new teachers in “growing into the profession.” As a result, their turnover rates over the past five years have dropped from 25% to single digits. The key to Globe USD’s success? “It’s one of the great things about being in a smaller rural district, we can try innovative things quickly without the bureaucracies of larger, urban districts,” Jennex said.

In addition to serving as Superintendent of Stanfield Elementary School District #24 in rural Arizona, Dr. Melissa Sadorf is part of the U.S. Department of Education School Ambassador Fellowship program. Like many rural district leaders, she competes for talent with surrounding urban and suburban districts that offer much higher pay scales. To combat this, her school district developed an intentional, strategic grow-your-own talent model that takes investing in future teachers to the next level. Sadorf’s district recruits current non-certified staff members and offers to pay for them to complete a credential in education. In exchange, the new teachers commit to teaching in the district for three years. Sadorf says that the strategy has not only been successful in recruiting local talent, but it’s also been successful in retaining that talent. The teachers feel they have invested themselves in the community, and, in turn, the community has invested itself in them. “There is a level of mutual respect because it’s an investment on both sides…the board’s resources and the person’s time and effort,” said Sadorf. 

God loves a normal bell curve, and they’re seen in just about every facet of life where statistics are applied. However, teaching is one area we can’t afford to have a majority of practitioners that are just “average.” We owe students so much more than that. Some of the best rural schools and districts across the country are successfully using grow-your-own strategies to stack the teacher pipeline deck so that the distribution is skewed to the betterment of students and communities. 

Dr. Jared Bigham is a fourth-generation rural educator. He serves as senior advisor on Workforce & Rural Initiatives for the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, is board chair of the Tennessee Rural Education Association, and is active in the National Rural Education Association. He is the proud husband to an assistant principal and father of four children.

What’s Really Driving Leadership Turnover in Education?

Image by Alachua County via Flickr

Image by Alachua County via Flickr

When DC Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced she was nominating Oakland, CA Superintendent Antwan Wilson to succeed Kaya Henderson as DC Public Schools’ Chancellor (after an anxious public search), the San Francisco Chronicle responded with a scathing op-ed accusing Wilson of disloyalty and self-serving ambition. The Chronicle also took a few shots at San Francisco’s former superintendent Richard Carranza, now working in Houston, and generally railed against urban superintendents who “come in, do enough to raise hopes, then move on to a higher paying job.”

High turnover in educational leadership is alarming, but to paraphrase the advice columnist Dan Savage, if you have a long string of dramatic, failed relationships, the common denominator is you. I’m not just picking on the Bay Area — the average urban superintendent stays in his or her role just 3.2 years, and state education chiefs turn over at an even faster rate. These dismal numbers are likely not the sole product of individual ambition, but it remains unclear what actually drives this churn. When experienced, qualified school system leaders across the country leave their posts much earlier than expected, should we blame the individuals, or take a closer look at the jobs?

What is clear is that state and district executive leadership roles have become more challenging in recent years. Federal education policies put myriad new responsibilities and choices in the hands of state and district central offices to measure teacher and school performance, increase student achievement, and close achievement gaps for disadvantaged  groups of students. For example, a new publication on teacher evaluation by my colleagues Kaitlin Pennington and Sara Mead uncovers a minefield of choices facing state and district leaders — and that is just one policy area out of many. Leaders are figuring out these new responsibilities in an increasingly polarized and politicized educational environment.

Holding our school systems and their leaders accountable for providing an excellent education to every student is absolutely the right thing to do, but we also should recognize that educational bureaucracies were not designed to be agile performance managers orchestrating school turnarounds. They were mostly built to disburse various funding streams down to schools, and collect documentation that the conditions of that funding and other legislative mandates have been met. Those compliance responsibilities remain in place even as new performance goals are added, and on top of that, many agency budgets are being slashed by their state legislatures. Untangling the messes of red tape, budgetary crises, and misaligned priorities takes time and support that most superintendents are not afforded by their school boards or by their communities.

Even the best leaders can be hamstrung by the political, legal, and bureaucratic contexts in which they operate. Instead of looking for more selfless miracle workers to lead dysfunctional systems, envision a school system where great leaders (or maybe good-enough leaders!) could do their best work. How would it be organized? How would it be accountable to the community and work in the best interests of students? What are the conditions that enable that kind of school system to exist and succeed? I don’t have all the answers, but legislators, governors, mayors, and school boards will need to think bigger to disrupt the current cycle of leadership churn, and these big questions are one place to start.

Enter the Young: Six City-Level Strategies to Harness Critical Talent for Education Reform (Part 3 of 3)

In my last two posts I cited a new report by Joe Cortright at City Observatory that describes an increase in the number of young and educated workers moving to America’s inner-cities over the last decade, the upside of this trend, and dangers of gentrification and segregation that it could bring. All in all, I think there’s a huge opportunity for city and education leaders to attract and retain young and educated workers in their city’s urban education reform movement while honoring long-time residents.

How might they do this? Here are six strategies they can employ:

  • Make your city a magnet. Macro-level demographic shifts emerge from millions of individuals making decisions. For college graduates, cities with good public transportation, walkable neighborhoods, diversity, culture, professional sports teams, and nightlife are important. Richard Florida has complementary posts on this here and here. In many cities, these attributes exist but aren’t known widely. Take entrepreneurial activity in Baltimore or the art scene in Detroit as examples. In these cases, there’s an opportunity for intermediary organizations and city governments to launch aggressive recruitment campaigns that highlight their assets. Where these urban assets aren’t present, education leaders should team up with city and business leaders to create policies that invest in walkability, affordable housing, nightlife, and entrepreneurial opportunity as a long-term talent strategy.
  • Source local talent and recapture diasporans. The focus of this series has been on young educated professionals moving into the inner city at a rapid rate, but every city has native talent and natives who’ve moved away. To create a talent strategy only around newcomers would be incomplete and insulting to a city’s long-time residents. State, cities, and universities could work together to market the professional and social benefits of living in inner cities to college juniors and seniors. Kansas provided loan forgiveness to recent college grads if they moved to rural areas. Why can’t states do the same for inner cities? Organizations like Challenge Detroit that run programs to identify native talent and provide them with career advancing opportunities can help establish local talent pipelines. Another valuable segment to pursue is diasporans, people from a city who have left, but still have an affinity for their hometown. Recapturing diasporans would likely take the form of marketing in targeted geographies coupled aggressive, high-touch recruiting from local organizations, and incentives like relocation stipends or loan forgiveness.
  • Build pipelines. Having talent pipeline organizations with expertise recruiting young professionals from across the country is critical. Teach for America, TNTP, New Leaders, Education Pioneers, The Strategic Data Project, and the Broad Residency are musts. The immediate benefit of having a steady stream of top talent is clear: organizations get skilled workers to execute their mission. But there’s more to it. When nationally recognized organizations put down roots in a city, it also signals to top-shelf school operators looking to expand that there will be enough quality principals and teachers to fuel their schools. City and education leaders should look to recruit such organizations, curry local support for their expansion, lower any barriers to entry, and fund startup costs to ensure a successful launch.
  • Introduce the neighbors.  Urban planner and blogger, Pete Saunders sees bringing these two populations together as an opportunity to introduce vital social, professional, and housing networks to low-income communities that need them. “Doing so, however, requires engagement by city newcomers in the neighborhoods they move into, and the companies they work for, in ways perhaps they had not imagined.” He has some great ideas on this; read them here. But it’s not a one-way street. Inner city communities can also help bridge differences that they might have with their neighbors by providing opportunities for newcomers to learn about local history in engaging, age-appropriate ways. For millennials, civic center lectures and walking history tours aren’t going to cut it. Instead, think along the lines of Nerd Nite where people give funny, alcohol-fueled, informative lectures at bars. Smart, compelling local media coverage like this and this, social media campaigns like Humans of New York, and public art installations can raise awareness as well. It’s likelier that someone will protect what is good and unique about a place if provided compelling opportunities to learn about its history.
  • Catch and DON’T release. Retaining young talent after they’ve migrated is an equally important but often neglected part of a long-term talent strategy. At the organization level, education organizations must strive to be talent-ready by building truly diverse teams as well as providing competitive compensation, autonomy, career development opportunities, recognition, effective management, and work-life balance – factors shown to increase retention. At the system level, local foundations and intermediaries must create a local ecosystem teeming with high-quality organizations so that young and highly mobile workers don’t feel constrained by a lack of options and flee to another city. Policy can play a role here too. Cities and states can offer incentives to individuals working for education organizations, such as low-interest home loans and student loan forgiveness.
  • Double down on dramatic reform efforts. As young professional age, start families, and look to put down roots, their desires shift from an active nightlife scene to things like single-family homes, open space, convenience, and (of course) schools. A looming question exists around whether there will be enough high-performing inner city schools to keep them from fleeing to the suburbs, what Mike Petrilli calls the diverse schools dilemma. Education reform is rarely considered a talent strategy, but access to good schools is a driving factor for relocation decisions which reinforces the importance of dramatic, swift, and cost effective city-wide reform efforts. Cities must work across all three sectors – district, charter, and private – to create a common vision for a dynamic system of schools and aggressively pursue strategies that deliver results quickly and cost efficiently.

In a country where the population of tier two and three cities fluctuate wildly over time, these tactics can help smaller cities compete in the war for talent and distinguish themselves from the rest.

I opened this series with a lyric from the song Enter the Young by The Association because it expresses a combination of energy, optimism, intelligence, caring, and daring that can invigorate urban education reform. It’s easy to envision deep racial and economic divides resulting from this trend, but that doesn’t make it inevitable. The work in front of us is to proactively mitigate risks and maximize benefits to urban communities through policy, planning, and practice.

But the influx of young, educated talent moving into America’s inner cities is a trend. And like all trends, it will change over time so acting on it with urgency is important. I’m convinced that coordinated policies, creativity, and a vigilant stance toward equity can capture this vital demographic and integrate them into communities so there’s mutual benefit.