Students who need the most help to level the playing field are being served by teachers least able to give them the help they need, national and state researchers said.
Unless policymakers create targeted retention policies, low-scoring schools with the neediest students will keep losing the most effective teachers, according to Hamilton Lankford, a professor at the University of Albany who has done a great deal of research on teacher recruitment and retention.
"The key question is how we make hard-to-staff schools more attractive," Lankford said at a program session on how to improve teacher quality in low-performing schools. "I think we have to look at differential pay to retain more of the highly effective teachers."
"Students with the most challenges should have the strongest teachers," said Tricia Coulter, director of the Teaching Quality and Leadership Institute at the Education Commission of the States. She cited national studies showing why teachers leave and what might encourage them to stay.
When teachers are asked why they leave, 38.1 percent say it's the opportunity for a better teaching job, 37.2 percent say it's dissatisfaction with support from administration; and 32.7 percent cite dissatisfaction with workplace conditions.
"Those last two reasons we can change through policy," Coulter said. "That's where we should put our efforts."
Coulter said teachers identified positive working conditions as:
having sufficient planning and collaboration time;
empowerment (engaging teachers in decisions) and
leadership that creates a culture of trust and support.
Lankford said the research also shows the importance of "Grow Your Own" programs that encourage urban students to go into teaching. He said a study of New York City teachers who had a suburban address when they applied for certification were 10 times more likely to transfer than those who have a city address when they applied for certification.
Lankford said school administrators need to be convinced that investing in retention programs is a smart business decision. "When the typical school district hires a person, it's a half a million dollar decision when you consider screening, evaluation and professional development," he said. "I don't think we devote enough resources to hold on to them."