Teacher Turnover and School Improvement: Examining the Mechanisms Through Which Instability Disrupts Schools, and How to Mitigate It

In many schools, teacher retention is a persistent problem, requiring school and district staff members to constantly search for, hire, and train teachers, often only to lose them after a short period of time. While researchers have studied causes of turnover in schools, the consequences of turnover on schools have received far less attention. 

Our research project, “Teacher Turnover and School Improvement: Examining the Mechanisms Through Which Instability Disrupts Schools, and How to Mitigate It,” examines how turnover affects schools, and what schools can do to protect themselves from the negative effects of turnover when it occurs. We focus on the processes and mechanisms through which turnover influences schools’ efforts to improve learning in Mathematics and English Language Arts. 

The study consists of four-year case studies of high schools in Texas. We work with four high schools that are high-poverty (40% or greater economically disadvantaged students), and one high school that is low poverty. The schools in our study vary along certain dimensions of school climate/culture surveys. The data we are collecting include surveys, interviews, and observations.

We hypothesize that the key mechanism through which turnover can disrupt improvement efforts is through its effects on the social organization of schools. We examine how turnover affects social networks, relationships, and shared vision and problem solving, and how these relationships may vary by school context. We also examine whether school organizational structures may help to moderate those relationships. Knowing how and why turnover affects schools can lead to potential points of intervention, such as new structures or practices, that may be helpful in mitigating negative effects on schools and students or help to stabilize schools.

We collaborate with districts by incorporating school district concerns and issues in our design and questions. Further, as part of this collaboration we invite district and high school leaders who are working with us to come to UT Austin for several advisory board meetings with national experts in human capital, curriculum and instruction, and school improvement.

This on-going work is funded by the Spencer Foundation’s Lyle Spencer Grant Program.