Teacher turnover costs state millions each year
Teacher turnover is costing the state about $20 million each year, with those costs disproportionately falling on the shoulders of some rural districts.
For every teacher that leaves and must be replaced, it costs the affected district $20,000, on average, according to a study published earlier this year by the University of Alaska Anchorage's Center for Alaska Education Policy Research at the Institute of Social and Economic Research.
The study was funded by the University of Alaska Foundation and took about a year and a half to complete, as the authors collated data from past studies and surveyed employees in 37 of Alaska's 54 school districts, both on and off the road system.
"In Alaska, teacher turnover is consistently higher in rural schools and districts," the authors noted.
Based on their findings, between 1999 and 2012, at the district level, turnover averaged 10 percent in the five largest districts in Alaska, which are predominantly urban and suburban. The turnover rate for the same period in rural districts was double that, or 20 percent.
They found at the school level, urban and suburban schools saw teacher turnover rates of 14-16 percent during the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 school years. Rural hubs, like Kotzebue, Utqiaġvik, or Dillingham, typically saw turnover rates of about 22 percent. What they called rural-remote schools, which are typically in villages off the road system, often saw turnover of more than 30 percent.
"Whereas a small amount of turnover may be positive, high turnover affects the continuity in instruction, leads to a lack of teaching expertise to make curriculum decisions, necessitates ongoing support and mentoring for new teachers, and requires time and resources to be reallocated for finding and training replacements," the authors noted.
Additionally, higher teacher turnover means less professional development opportunities for experienced teachers, as more resources end up allocated toward giving new teachers the help they need to get started, rather than toward helping returning teachers build on their base.
The effects of high teacher turnover are not only felt by districts, schools, and fellow teachers, either. Students bear the brunt of the cost in their own educational and extracurricular development.
"The correlation between high turnover and low student achievement has been demonstrated in Alaska," the study's authors wrote, citing a separate study done in 2013.
That year, 85.8 percent of students in the state's five districts with the lowest teacher turnover rates were proficient in reading. In stark contrast, only 46.9 percent were proficient in the state's five highest-turnover districts.
There were a number of factors the authors found contributed to high rates of teacher turnover, especially in rural districts or in remote schools, including the physical work environment, school leadership, workload, and compensation.
They cited "poor or unstable leadership" in schools as being a driving factor of loss of teachers, along with "high or unmanageable workloads" that lead to teacher burnout, along with lower salaries for amount of work done.
In rural schools, teachers often end up wearing many hats. They may find themselves teaching multiple subjects and hosting handfuls of extracurricular clubs and activities simultaneously.
Low-income schools in higher-poverty areas often see the highest teacher turnover rates, the authors noted, meaning conversely, the schools with the least amount of money spent the most on recruiting teachers year after year and less on other facets of education.
"In addition to the conditions noted in the national literature, Alaskan districts — particularly rural communities — have additional characteristics associated with high turnover including poor community connections, environmental factors, place of preparation, and cultural differences," they wrote.
They referred to another 2013 study based on interviews with about 300 rural teachers in the state who said the more connected they felt to their communities, the more likely they were to stay longer.
Teachers said they felt isolated before they left and craved relationships and family ties.
That particular study "noted that teacher turnover affects communities as well; residents are unwilling to invest in creating relationships with educators who they believe will be gone in a year or two." That, in turn, led to teachers feeling more isolated, creating a vicious cycle of leaving and left behind.
In districts like those in the far north, the unfamiliar climate and landscape for out-of-state teachers can also play a role in them deciding to leave. A 2012 study of more than a hundred teachers in both the Lower Kuskokwim School District and the Northwest Arctic Borough School District found the cold and dark of winter, combined with distance to family and friends, and high costs of living all contributed, the authors wrote.
As significantly more than half of new hires in Alaska come from out of state, preparing teachers for what life will be like in an unfamiliar community is key to retaining them for more than a few years.
Differences in cultural expectations, norms, languages, and practices can also be a point of friction between both new teachers and their communities.
While the study did not go into detail about homegrown teachers, it did note they make up relatively few of the state's annual new hires. However, locally born, raised, and educated teachers are more familiar with how villages and small communities operate, which is why certain schools, like Iḷisaġvik College, and education advocates have focused on the importance of training both rural and Native teachers and giving them pathways to employment in their home state.
The authors concluded it would be important, going forward, for schools and districts to better understand why their teachers are leaving so they can better prepare themselves for addressing those issues and reversing the trend over time.
"To the extent that these data can illuminate reasons teachers are leaving and potential ways to lessen turnover, we recommend that districts implement mechanisms to record and track turnover patterns over time," they wrote. "These mechanisms will need to consider the realities [and] harsh truths about teacher turnover patterns, particularly in low-income, rural, and difficult-to-staff districts."
They noted teachers were more likely to stay if they felt supported, prepared, had smaller classes, got to know students and families more intimately, and felt like they were making a difference — all of which should be capitalized on when hiring new educators.
While the study focused on the effect of turnover predominantly on the schools themselves, as the Sounder has previously reported, students and community members also feel the weight of losing teachers year after year.
With some village schools, including those in the Arctic, employing fewer than 10 teachers total, seeing half the school leave from one year to the next can be disheartening, with students feeling left behind and having to start from square one, both in terms of relationship and coursework, each time a new teacher comes to town.
The full study can be read at www.iser.uaa.alaska.edu/Publications/2017-CostTeacher.pdf.
Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.