School Leaders Can Help Reduce Minority Teacher Turnover

The 2018-19 school year is off to a rough start in Oklahoma, where a persistent teacher shortage has left state education officials scrambling to fill almost 500 teaching vacancies. While some vacancies are subject-matter specific, many are created because of teacher turnover—whether they’re moving to another school or out of the profession altogether.

Teacher turnover is a persistent problem in U.S. education, leading to undesirable consequences for students and wasted district resources. For instance, data from Charlotte Mecklenburg reveals that there’s a negative impact on student math achievement in grades that lose an effective teacher. Even students who never interacted with a departing teacher can experience performance declines because of disruptions to teacher peer learning when an effective colleague leaves. These negative impacts are particularly concerning when minority teachers depart, given their chronic underrepresentation in public schools.

There are lots of benefits for minority students assigned to minority teachers. For example, when students of color are assigned to teachers who look like them, they are more likely to report exerting higher levels of personal effort and feeling happy in class; more likely to receive referrals to gifted programs; less likely to experience exclusionary discipline; and more likely to complete high school and enroll in college. As a result, we’ve seen a recent expansion of efforts to increase the degree to which teachers reflect the student population as a whole.

Strategies to diversify the teacher workforce typically focus on improving recruitment: attending out-of-state teacher hiring fairs; recruiting from colleges of education that are doing a particularly good job of graduating students of color; and advocating for summer teaching fellowships and scholarships to offset the tuition costs for minority students interesting in pursuing a career in teaching. But recruitment efforts like these can be expensive. It’s high time we paid better attention to the retention of teachers of color and the important role school leaders can play in those efforts.

Evidence from North Carolina and New York City reveals that workplace support from school administration is critically important for reducing turnover. Teacher ratings of the school environment change depending on which principal is leading the school, an effect that is independent of other factors that might influence their perceptions of the school environment, such as school resources or the composition of the student body. In fact, support from school administrators is one of the most important factors in predicting which teachers stay, and it’s especially important for minority teachers in schools that have few teachers of color to begin with. A particularly interesting finding is that minority teachers have higher levels of job satisfaction and lower turnover rates if their principal is also a minority.

Given their influential role in reducing turnover, what specific strategies are available to school leaders to improve retention among teachers of color? Principals can consult with minority teachers to learn what administrative practices foster a supportive work environment. This might include efforts to promote inclusivity, building a culture that doesn’t tolerate race-based stereotypes, and promoting passive representation by diversifying the school leadership team to better reflect the racial composition of the entire community. At a minimum, this sends a signal to families about how much the education system values inclusiveness and how power is distributed among the various racial groups represented in a school.

Furthermore, teachers of color need viable pathways that allow them to enter leadership positions fully prepared. Research has shown that teachers of color (and, in particular, male teachers of color) risk being pigeonholed into certain types of leadership positions that offer no career advancement in the long run. Existing school leaders must provide appropriate opportunities for advancement across all staff, and not depend on teachers of color to serve primarily as “deans of culture” or language translators.

Teacher turnover and shortages are challenges that the entire education field faces, but these challenges are especially acute for teachers of color. School leaders can be the missing critical link to creating the working conditions that attract, retain, and develop teachers of color. Policymakers should examine the conditions under which school leaders can create these environments.

— Anna Egalite and Constance Lindsay

Anna J. Egalite is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development at North Carolina State University. Constance A. Lindsay is a research associate at the Urban Institute, where she studies K–12 education policies.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College