SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah searches for solutions to its higher-than-average rate of teacher turnover, it may want to focus more on working conditions.
Students come with challenges, but schools' responses to the challenges can make a significant difference in rates of teacher retention, said John Papay, assistant professor of education and economics at Brown University.
Many studies show that teacher turnover is greater in schools that serve low-performing students, higher proportions of minority students and low-income students, he said.
"These patterns really reflect the professional work environments in these schools more than they reflect the students served," said Papay, who was one of five national and state experts who took part in a panel discussion on the causes and impacts of teacher turnover conducted Thursday in the Utah Senate Building.
The event was co-hosted by the Utah chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network and Voices for Utah Children.
Often, the policy response to high teacher turnover in schools in low-income neighborhoods has been to pay educators more to work in those schools, Papay said.
Recent educational research "has really tried to shift this narrative from thinking it's not about the kids but it's about the working conditions," he said.
There is mounting evidence that the professional environments in schools matters more than student composition, Papay said.
"Teachers want to stay in schools where they're supported, in schools where they feel successful with their students and in schools where they can grow and develop," he said.
Pay and benefits are important factors in teacher retention, but experts say they're not the only factor at work. A recent survey conducted by the Utah Education Policy Center determined that emotional exhaustion, stress and burnout are key reasons teachers move to a different school or leave the profession altogether.
In Utah, a majority of new teachers quit within seven years, which exceeds the national average, according to a recent study.
Susanna Loeb, a professor in Stanford University's Graduate School of Education, said teacher turnover has negative effects on student learning, even if the students weren't in the classrooms of the teachers who left the school.
If two of four math teachers in a single grade left a school, "it would reduce learning by almost two months" the following school year, Loeb said of research she helped conduct.
"So this is a nontrivial amount," she said.
Loeb said teachers hired to replace teachers who have left are, on average, less effective than more-experienced teachers, which is another factor that impacts students.
Teacher turnover is comparable to other professions that also require a bachelor's degree, Loeb said, but there are much higher rates in schools where there are large concentration of students with signficant needs.
Mountain View Elementary Principal Kenneth Limb said teachers at the Glendale neighborhood school range from one educator with 40 years of experience who will retire this year to some who have left this past year with far fewer years of service.
Teachers may not get into the profession for the pay "but after awhile, sometimes they leave because of the pay."5 comments on this story
A lack of respect for the profession also takes a toll, not just from the public but from the "excessive ways teachers have to prove their worth," he said.
As the University of Utah survey of teachers found, "stressors of the job are constant and unrelenting," Limb said.
Mountain View serves students who have intensive needs such as refugee children who know little English, some of whom have never been enrolled in formal education programs.
Add to that students who have experienced trauma or have other challenges at home.
"Folks, compassion fatigue is real and many of my teachers have it," he said.