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The Critical Importance of Teacher Recruitment and Retention

The Role of Research in Policy Decisions
Considering the Whole Body of Evidence
Supporting Resources

The Critical Importance of Teacher Recruitment and Retention

While many factors contribute to the successful education of children, there is a strong consensus among experts that the effectiveness of their teachers is the single most important educational determinant. Studies by William Sanders and June Rivers (1996); Ronald Ferguson (1991); Steven Rivkin, Eric Hanushek and John Kain (1998); and others all support the primary importance of good teaching. Sanders and Rivers (1996), for example, found that students who had strong teachers for three years in a row made reading gains over the period that were 54% higher than their fellow students who began at the same level but who had weak teachers for three consecutive years. Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain found the quality of the teacher accounted for at least 7.5% of the variation they measured in student achievement — by far the largest single factor. This finding was corroborated by Dan Goldhaber, Dominic Brewer and Deborah Anderson (1999) who reported that just over 8% of the variation in student achievement was a result of teacher differences. And another study by Hanushek (1992) found that teachers' differences had an impact of as much as a grade level in student performance.

Teaching effectiveness, however, is a function of a number of factors. As the previous report on teacher preparation Eight Questions on Teacher Preparation: What Does the Research Say? by the Education Commission of the States (ECS)] makes quite clear, a good grasp of the subject(s) being taught is essential, and skill in teaching the subject and a general ability to manage a classroom also are high on the list. Also helpful seems to be a teacher's ability to recognize and respond appropriately to the needs of the particular kinds of students he or she is teaching. Beyond these basic attributes, exceptional degrees of intelligence, personal charisma and dedication probably all help to make a teacher more effective, but the reality is exceptional teachers are, by definition, in short supply.

Beyond the teacher's own skills and abilities, effective teaching also likely depends on the environment in which an individual is teaching. A teacher may be very effective teaching in one kind of environment but not in another. She may lack the skills to teach in an extremely diverse classroom, the patience to teach boisterous students, the toughness to teach rebellious students, the empathy to be good with low-achieving students or the self-confidence to teach exceptional ones. She may be a wonderful 1st- or 2nd-grade teacher but a so-so 4th- or 5th-grade teacher. A particularly confident and self-reliant teacher may be effective in spite of poor support from colleagues and administrators, while a beginning or less confident teacher may require a much more supportive environment.

It would be ideal if every teacher taught in an environment that matched his or her skills and temperament. The reality, however, is not every teacher has adequate knowledge of the subject(s) they are assigned to teach. This is a particularly serious problem for low-income and minority students. A 1999 study by Richard Ingersoll found that in mathematics, for example, 43% of teachers in high-poverty secondary schools lacked a major or minor in their field compared with 27% in more affluent schools. In science, the figures were 28% and 18%, respectively. A 2002 study by Hamilton Lankford, Susanna Loeb and James Wyckoff of schools in New York State also found that the schools with the largest percentages of poor and minority students tended to have the least-qualified teachers.

While the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 aims to change this disparity by requiring all teachers have adequate subject knowledge in their teaching fields, research by ECS and other organizations indicates many states are still far from reaching that goal. Indeed, a recent Washington Post article reported that 25% of the teachers in our nation's capitol still lack appropriate teaching credentials. In addition to disparities in subject knowledge, a study by the National Center for Education Statistics (2000) found that 20% of teachers in high-poverty schools have three or fewer years of teaching experience, compared with 11% in low-poverty schools. In other words, it appears there are not enough experienced, well-qualified teachers to go around, particularly for low-income and minority students.

At least part of the solution to this problem would be to recruit more well-qualified and experienced teachers into high-poverty schools. Policymakers across the United States are searching for ways to accomplish precisely that objective, with financial incentives, changes in collective-bargaining agreements, quick-entry (so-called "alternative") teacher preparation programs and more efficient district hiring practices growing in popularity as strategies. Such efforts aim not only to bring more people into the teaching profession, particularly in high-need subjects such as science and mathematics, but also to encourage more well-qualified teachers to teach in the most challenging schools.

The solution lies not only in teacher recruitment, however, but also in teacher retention. Policymakers and educators have been warned for an entire decade about the attrition of teachers from the profession. In its 2003 report No Dream Denied: A Pledge to America's Children, the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (NCTAF) claimed there was no real problem of teacher supply in the United States but that teacher attrition was the true cause of the so-called "teacher shortage." Whether or not that claim is correct, particularly for the most acute shortage subjects such as mathematics and science, it is the case that evidence from across the country indicates the problem of teacher turnover is most acute in high-poverty schools. A recent report on schools in Colorado, for example, found that while the average turnover rate statewide between 2001 and 2004 was 20%, the 2002-03 turnover rate in 10 high-poverty schools in the Denver district was 50% or higher.

There are costs associated with high rates of teacher turnover both financially and in terms of creating a productive learning environment. Ideally, the teaching profession could benefit from recruiting promising beginning teachers who would remain in the profession for more than just five or six years, particularly since some studies (e.g., Murnane and Phillips, 1981) indicate that teacher effectiveness increases significantly over the course of that time. It may be unrealistic, however, given the fluidity of people's careers these days to expect most teachers to remain in a given teaching position for a decade or even to remain in the profession itself for much longer than that time.

What is needed to address teacher recruitment and retention effectively are (1) an accurate assessment of the demographic characteristics of the teaching profession, (2) an understanding of the teacher labor market and (3) any available evidence of the success — or likely success — of various strategies that might be employed to address recruitment and retention problems. That is precisely what this report seeks to provide. While many policy debates about teacher recruitment and retention are generally much less divisive than the debates about teacher preparation or about teacher licensure and certification, the issue of teacher compensation in particular has become extremely controversial in recent years. There is a large split between those who call for across-the-board increases in teacher salaries and those who believe salary increases can be justified only if teachers' pay is a function of their classroom performance or difficulty of their responsibilities. Thus, as in many spheres of education, strong advocacy groups have arisen on this issue whose view of the available evidence on the issue tends to favor their particular position. And there are other groups, as well, whose special interests in the area of teacher recruitment and retention predispose them to construe the evidence in support of their particular point of view.

ECS has no vested interest in any particular position on the issues related to teacher recruitment and retention. As much as possible, this report — Eight Questions on Teacher Recruitment and Retention — attempts to provide a neutral and objective assessment of the research findings. If there are any acknowledged biases in this effort, they are (1) a desire to find importance for policymakers and others in the body of research reviewed and (2) a concern, on the other hand, not to pretend that the research supports more than it legitimately does.

In the end, of course, teacher recruitment and retention are local problems that require locally appropriate solutions. The nature of teacher shortages, of the makeup and distribution of the teacher workforce, and of the strategies that will work in the labor market differ from district to district and state to state. Nevertheless, the broad picture the present study seeks to paint is likely to reflect the local situation in many states and districts. Hopefully, the important information and insights contained here will help educators and policymakers craft their own particular approaches to the challenges they face.

Finally, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the issue of teacher recruitment and retention is related to the issue of teacher quality. It is not just about ensuring an adequate number of teachers for the U.S. classrooms are available, but about having the teachers in the profession who are as accomplished as possible. Teacher preparation programs need to recruit the most promising teachers they can and build the capacity of their recruits through solid teacher education. Likewise, once teachers are in the classroom, states and districts must continue to enhance their skills and knowledge through high-quality professional development.

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The Role of Research in Policy Decisions

Policy decisions in education are never made solely on the basis of objective information. There are always values that come into play and, in the world of politics, compromises to win support or bow to fiscal constraints. In addition, education research is never adequate to justify the adoption or development of a particular policy, strategy or program.

There are several reasons for this inadequacy. First, policy decisions often require a commitment of money and resources. The fact that the research provides evidence for the effectiveness of a particular kind of program or strategy does not mean that program or strategy is affordable or cost effective or that it can be supported politically.

It is likely, for example, that doubling teacher salaries across the board would have a profoundly positive impact on a district's ability to recruit and retain teachers. In a large district, however, such a measure would be extremely expensive and would likely require the adoption of new tax policies the voters of the district would not accept. Moreover, there is growing reluctance among policymakers to support across-the-board salary increases; instead, policymakers increasingly favor differentiated compensation that rewards teachers who are successful or who assume greater levels of responsibility. In addition to that, the benefits of doubling teacher salaries might be minimal in terms of increasing either the quality or length of stay of teachers hired — i.e., it might not be cost effective.

In a similar vein, although research may show that the result of implementing a particular kind of strategy is statistically significant, it may not be practically significant. A hefty increase in district teacher salaries, for example, may be associated with a measurable impact on teacher retention. The decrease in attrition — the effect size — may be so modest, however (say, from 24% to 23%), that it is not ultimately worth the expense the salary increase entails. On top of that, the salary increase may have occurred simultaneously with a downturn in the local economy, meaning the decrease in teacher attrition may not have resulted from higher salaries, at all, but from the lack of other job options.

Second, policies, programs and interventions in education are highly contextual, and their success generally depends on the convergence of a number of factors that may not be easily replicated or that may not be identified in the research as important to the outcomes observed. In addition to research evidence, then, policymakers or educators need to have good information or else take a leap of faith that the adoption of a policy or program proven successful in one setting also will be successful in another.

Despite these limitations, research contributes valuable information for policy decisions. The weight of research evidence, and especially a lone research study, is never a sufficient guide for policy decisions, but decisions that fly in the face of a sizable body of good research are likely to be ineffective and possibly even disastrous. And while not even a whole body of research on a particular question will provide definitive answers, the verdict of multiple research studies should be regarded as the most reliable guide available.

The research evidence addressing various questions on teacher recruitment and retention is frequently inconclusive or at best limited. This does not necessarily mean the various strategies under considerationfor example, recruitment programs targeted at high school students or an increase in career-advancement opportunities within the teaching professionare poor policy choices. It does mean, however, policy regarding such strategies lacks the support of solid research and must rely instead on less objective and reliable sources of evidence.

* For additional insight into the methodological issues involved in the preceding discussion, see the section titled "How Do I Know if the Research Warrants Policy Changes?" in A Policymaker's Primer on Education Research.

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Considering the Whole Body of Evidence

Decisions about practice or policy should be informed by the entire body of good research available. Proponents of one point or view or another may be able to point to a single study or a number of studies that support their position, while ignoring those that do not. Such a selective use of research cannot provide real assurance the course of action the proponents recommend is wise. Even if the preponderance of research supports a particular decision or policy, evidence to the contrary should not be ignored.

The importance of evaluating the entire body of relevant evidence, as opposed to relying on a single study, holds for fields like health care or agriculture as much as for education. In health care, for example, new findings about the benefits or dangers of certain pharmaceuticals or foods or about the effectiveness of various diets appear with confusing frequency. If a person were to base decisions about what drugs to take or what foods to eat on the findings of each new study, that individual would be changing medications and diet constantly — so frequently, in fact, there would be insufficient time for the true impact of any particular change to be measured. Thus decisions about one's diet or pharmaceutical prescriptions must be based on an assessment of all available evidence, and apparent conflicts between the findings of different research studies must be explained to the satisfaction of the physician and patient.

The same holds true for education. While new studies about a particular strategy may not appear with the frequency of new research in health care, the investment in any strategy — especially if it is meant to be enacted in policy — is sufficiently great that any change of course will be costly and repeated changes unaffordable. Thus, it is in the best interest of policymakers, educators and other stakeholders to look at the entire body of available evidence when making policy decisions. The more good research that exists, the more it becomes possible to understand the limitations of any individual study and the inconsistencies that may seem to exist between the findings of one piece of research and another.

To be sure, it is entirely conceivable — in education as in other fields — a new research study will provide dramatic and powerful new evidence for or against the efficacy of a particular strategy. Until the findings of that study can be confirmed independently by other studies, however, and until the entire body of relevant studies can be reassessed in light of these new findings, the costs, risks, dislocations and other inconveniences that accompany change may make it prudent to stay the course. On the other hand, in cases where a current practice is demonstrably inadequate or downright harmful, the risks of implementing a new strategy, even though unproven, may be outweighed by the urgent need to make a change.

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Supporting Resources

Ferguson, R.F. (1991). "Paying for Public Education: New Evidence on How and Why Money Matters." Harvard Journal on Legislation 28, 465-498.

Goldhaber, D.D., Brewer, D.J. and Anderson, D.J. (1999). "A Three-Way Error Components Analysis of Educational Productivity." Education Economics, 7 (3), 199-208.

Hanushek, E.A. (1992). "The Trade-Off between Child Quantity and Quality." Journal of Political Economy, 100 (1), 84-117.

Haynes, D. (2005, April 5). "25% of City Teachers Short on Credentials, Janey Says." Washington Post.

Ingersoll, R.M. (1999). "The Problem of Underqualified Teachers in American Secondary Schools." Educational Researcher, 28 (2), 26-37.

Lankford, H., Loeb, S. and Wyckoff, J. (2002). "Teacher Sorting and the Plight of Urban Schools: A Descriptive Analysis." Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 24 (1), 37-62.

Mayer, D.P., Mullens, J.E. and Moore, M.T. (2000). Monitoring School Quality: An Indicators Report. (NCES 2001-303). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Mitchell, N. and Hubbard, B. (2004, December 24). "Districts Face Revolving Door: One in Five Teachers Changes Schools Each Year in State." Rocky Mountain News.

Murnane, R.J. and Phillips, B.R. (1981). "What Do Effective Teachers of Inner-City Children Have in Common?" Social Science Research, 10, 83-100.

National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (2003). No Dream Denied: A Pledge to America's Children. Washington, DC: Author.

National Partnership for Teaching in At-Risk Schools (2005). Qualified Teachers for At-Risk Schools: A National Imperative. Washington, DC: Author.

Rivkin, S.G., Hanushek, E.A. and Kain, J.F. (1998). Teachers, Schools and Academic Achievement. (Working Paper 6691). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Sanders, W. and Rivers, J. (1996). Cumulative and Residual Effects of Teachers on Future Student Academic Achievement. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee, Value-Added Research and Assessment Center.

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© 2005 Education Commission of the States