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 What makes teachers stay?





Study Design


Stability in the teacher workforce is a factor associated with successful PK12 schools (Ronfeldt, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2013). However, teacher turnover and attrition is a growing problem both nationally and within Virginia. Research on trends in the teacher workforce has shown increased numbers of teachers transferring between schools and, in many cases, leaving the profession. This problem is especially apparent among early career teachers, where it is estimated that more than half leave teaching in the first five years of service (Ingersoll, 2001; Papay, Bacher-Hicks, Page, & Marinell, 2017). There are also particular content areas where shortages of teachers are the highest; this includes Special Education, Elementary Education, Middle Education, Career and Technical Education, and Science and Math (for example see Virginia Department of Education, Commonwealth of Virginia Critical Shortage Teaching Endorsement Areas 2018-19). This problem cannot be understated, as there is evidence that fewer teachers are choosing to enter the profession (Darling-Hammond & Sykes, 2003; Ingersoll, 2001, 2002; “Where have all,” 2015; US Department of Education, 2015). 

All of this puts a financial burden on school divisions. The total costs for teacher absences nationwide in 2004 were estimated to be approximately $25 billion dollars (District Management Council, 2004). A pattern of continual teacher turnover exacts financial and organizational costs, with teacher attrition costing the United States as much as $2.2 billion a year. (Guin, 2004; Ingersoll, 2001; Ronfeldt, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2013; Simon & Johnson, 2013; Alliance for Excellent Education, 2014). Associated costs of teacher turnover include new teacher hiring, training and professional development (Barnes, Crowe, & Schaefer, 2007; Kraft, Marinell, & Yee, 2016; Darling-Hammond & Sykes, 2003; Ronfeldt, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2013)

It is also important to note that both the problem of teacher attrition and the intensity of these negative effects are most profound in the schools with the highest needs (Clotfelter, Ladd, & Vigdor, 2007; Allensworth, Ponisciak, & Mazzeo, 2009; Marinell & Coca, 2013; Barnes et al., 2007; Darling-Hammond & Sykes, 2003; Ronfeldt, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2013; Ingersoll, 2001).

In the spring of 2018, the Policy and Planning Council of the Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium (MERC) voted to commission a study on teacher retention that would provide insights into the phenomenon and practical recommendations for policy and practice. Following the selection of the topic, MERC assembled a research team that included faculty and graduate students from VCU’s School of Education and key school personnel from the seven MERC school divisions. The research team met on a regular basis through the summer and fall to develop research questions and design a study. 


There are four goals that guide this study.

1. To develop a better understanding of the factors underlying the current patterns of teacher retention in the MERC region. 

2. To support the development of district data practices that will allow for tracking teacher retention and understanding the factors driving it.

3. To conduct evaluation of current state and local policies focused on teacher retention to determine impact and cost/benefit. 

4. To build a regional community of educational researchers and school leaders with professional expertise in the area of teacher retention. 

Study Components

This study has two components. Each component has a set of interrelated research questions and a specific design for answering the questions. While the components are separate in terms of design, component one does build a foundation of data that will be used in component two to conduct evaluations of existing policies and programs. Below are discussions of the two study components in more detail. This is followed by a study timeline that illustrates the sequence of key research activities.   

Component one: Factors that drive teacher retention. 

The purpose of this component is to identify patterns of teacher retention in the MERC region and to determine the school and system-level factors driving them. This component will employ a mixed-method design that includes (1) an analysis of the quality, access, and use of current data relevant to teacher retention studies; (2) the collection, organization, and analysis of existing secondary data; (3) the development of an exit survey; and (4) the development and fielding of a survey on teacher work experience. Final analysis will involve triangulation of secondary data with survey data to understand the relationship between teacher work experience and retention.  

Component one of the study is designed to address the following five research questions: 

(RQ 1) What is the availability, quality, and use of teacher retention data within the MERC school divisions? What are the differences between divisions? 

(RQ 2) What are the trends and patterns of retention in the MERC region? How do retention patterns vary according to school characteristics (e.g., student demographics, accreditation status)? How do they vary according to teacher characteristics (e.g., race/ethnicity, gender, experience level, degree type, subject taught, etc.)?  

(RQ 3) When teachers leave a school, what are the reasons they provide?

(RQ 4) What are the school factors that influence teachers’ experiences of their work? How do teachers’ experiences of work relate to their interest in staying in or leaving the profession? 

RQ4 wll be informed by data from RQ3 as well as from our previous Understanding Teacher Morale study. 

(RQ 5) What is the relationship between teachers’ experiences of work and the patterns of teacher retention?  


Component two: Teacher retention policy analysis and evaluation. 

The purpose of this component of the study is to provide an overview of state and regional policies and programs relevant to teacher retention, and then, to conduct evaluations of existing policies and initiatives to determine efficacy and cost benefit.   

Component two of the study is designed to address two research questions: 

(RQ 6) What are the existing policies at the federal, state, and local level that relate to teacher retention?  How are policies structured at the state and local level?  How does the structure of policies vary across divisions? 

(RQ 7) How successful are the policies and practices in retaining teachers? What are the cost/benefits of these policies? 


Podcast Episodes

This panel discussion at the Philosophy of Education Society Conference in March 2019 featured Doris Santoro from Bowdoin College (author of Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can Stay), Winston Thompson from Ohio State University (host of the podcast PIPEline), Allison Fleming (teacher from Hanover County Public Schools), Jesse Senechal (Director of MERC and author of Understanding Teacher Morale), and David Naff (Assistant Director of MERC and host of the podcast ). The panel discussed how to connect educational philosophy, research, and practice to help teachers stay in the profession.


Jonathan Walker (Richmond), LaRon Scott (VCU), Bruce Fillman (Chesterfield), Meredith Parker (Powhatan), and Allison Fleming (Hanover) from our research and study team discuss the issue of teacher retention and our plans for this study. Click here to check out the full episode page.  





    Bruce Fillman, Principal, Hening Elementary School
    Denise Bowes, Assistant Principal, Midlothian High School
    Jason Buck, Human Resources Administrator
    Vinny Neffinger, Assistant Director of Recruitment

Andy Armstrong, Executive Director for Business Operations

Tina McCay, Principal, Goochland Elementary School

Ann Wallace, Teacher, Pearsons Corner Elementary School

Allison Fleming, Senior Teacher, Lee-Davis High School

Angela Stewart, Educational Specialist, Professional Learning and Leadership

Leah Wiedenhoft, Assistant Principal, Glen Allen High School

Jess Burbic, Associate Principal, Godwin High School

Crystal Goode, Talent Manager, Human Resources

Meredith Parker, Director of Human Resources

Darlene Currie, Director of Professional Development

Helen Demena, Manager of Talent Acquisition, Human Resources

Johnathan Walker, Teacher, Binford