Advocating for Teachers: Strategies to Improve Teacher Retention

A teacher smiles and points to a group of high school-age students sitting at classroom desks who are raising their hands to be called on.

Teacher numbers are dwindling, and schools are struggling to attract and keep those who are qualified. In 2016, the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) warned of an oncoming teacher shortage with the potential to cause an educational crisis. If nothing changes, the Economic Policy Institute projects that by 2025 we could face a national deficit of 200,000 teachers. The schools hardest hit will be the most vulnerable ones—those serving underprivileged communities in both urban and rural locations.

High-poverty school districts are disproportionately affected by teacher turnover, and research demonstrates teacher retention is critical for student learning. Representation is also critical to promoting successful learning outcomes for marginalized students, yet teachers of color are changing jobs at higher rates than white teachers (19 percent versus 15 percent).

School leadership has the power to change this trajectory; subsequent research conducted by the LPI has found teachers say administrative support is the most important factor in career satisfaction. Successful school leadership can significantly boost teacher retention and avert a crisis by supporting staff, correcting hiring biases that penalize teachers of color, and improving working conditions.

Five Key Strategies for Teacher Retention

A 2010 Wallace Foundation study across 180 schools in nine different states famously found not a “single case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership.” Teachers are responsible for student achievement, but to be successful, teachers need the support of school leaders, who shape the culture and environment within their schools.

Louisville’s J. B. Atkinson Academy for Excellence in Teaching and Learning—a school where almost all of the students live below the poverty line—offers one example of powerful leadership. During the seven years Dewey Hensley served as principal at Atkinson, turnover dwindled, transfer applications to work at Atkinson swelled, and student proficiency rates across subjects doubled. Hensley led by focusing on collaboration with teachers, making Atkinson a school where everyone felt empowered to succeed.

To combat attrition and provide stable environments for students, the LPI has outlined five strategies for school leaders to promote a culture that supports teachers, and therefore supports teacher retention:

1. Salaries and Compensation

Nationwide salary data published by the LPI shows:

  • Title 1 schools have 50 percent higher attrition than low-poverty schools.
  • Teachers in affluent districts out-earn high-poverty district teachers by 35 percent.

Across America, teachers are moving from lower to higher paying districts. In California, the West Contra Costa Unified School District, a Title 1 district, has lost two-thirds of its teachers to other Bay Area schools.

Increasing teachers’ salaries encourages teachers to stay at their schools, which promotes a stable environment. New teachers must learn to navigate classroom responsibilities while familiarizing themselves with a school’s structures, and it takes teachers three to five years in a school to become most effective at helping their students learn. Marginalized communities, where students especially need stability, suffer the most from high turnover.

But by increasing salaries and improving teacher retention, states can actually save money. On average, between recruiting, hiring, and training, it costs anywhere from $4,400 to $17,900 to replace just one teacher, according to a study published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. California, for example, spends over $2 billion each year on attrition.

2. Preparation and Cost of Entry

According to the most recent data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, on average, teachers with a master’s degree out-earn those with a bachelor’s by almost $13,000. This premium reflects the importance of highly specialized training such as student teaching, pedagogical study, and mentor feedback.

Pursuing higher education, though, can be difficult for teachers who need to enter the workforce and begin earning a salary. Title 1 schools are disproportionately likely to hire teachers who have not had advanced training. LPI findings show teachers who do not receive instruction in teaching are up to three times more likely to leave their jobs.

Additionally, to take on a leadership role, educators need several years of teaching experience and a master’s degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, K-12 principals typically make over $95,000 annually, or roughly double the average American salary.

Online learning, scholarship services, and teacher residencies are several ways states and universities are helping redress training—and therefore career—inequities. By eliminating costs associated with relocating and allowing students to continue working while pursuing expert training, online learning removes barriers to earning an advanced degree.

3. Hiring and Personnel Management

Attracting and retaining diverse teachers is one of the most important factors in supporting student success. Recently, The Atlantic spotlighted hiring practices and biases that harm teachers—and therefore students—of color. While 53 percent of all public school students are nonwhite, only 18 percent of all teachers are people of color.

According to The Atlantic, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an economist who studies policies to alleviate childhood poverty, has found that by increasing the number of black teachers in a school district, the black-white achievement gap among students narrows. Schanzenbach suggests that to benefit students, school leaders must develop a long-term vision for how to increase diversity through hiring practices.

Problems with representation are not limited to hiring practices, though; they’re also about teacher retention. From 1987 to 2013, the number of Hispanic, black, Asian, and Native American teachers doubled, according to The Hechinger Report. But because teachers of color are more likely to work in high-poverty districts, they face burdens that, without aid from leadership, make teachers more likely to leave.

Black principals, however, are more likely to hire and retain black teachers, research shows. Yet just over ten percent of principals in U.S. schools are black, while nearly 80 percent are white. The Education Trust found racial biases, discrimination, and stereotyping limit opportunities for black teachers to advance their careers and further leads to attrition.

Racism is a key issue in navigating the educational workplace, say black educators from across the country who spoke with The Education Trust. To empower black teachers and promote career development, it is not enough simply to hire more diverse teachers—school leaders must examine biased school cultures and system practices. Advanced study in educational leadership offers one way school leaders can understand and address systemic and structural disparities due to race and other intersectional considerations such as gender and class.

4. Induction and Support for New Teachers

It’s not enough to simply hire good teachers, schools must also support these teachers to help them grow and develop. For example, pairing novice teachers with experienced teachers helps new teachers learn and provides a way for established teachers to take on leadership roles while remaining in the classroom.

In an interview with Educators for Excellence, a teacher-led organization that works to make sure teachers have a voice in school policies, Barbara Hull, a vetern teacher in the Bronx, spoke about her experience supporting new teachers. Hull explains that mentoring and coaching programs offer critical teacher-support, communicate a cohesive school vision, and improve student outcomes—all of which leads to increased teacher retention.

5. Working Conditions

Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. Across high- and low-poverty schools, working conditions are defined by school leadership, accountability systems, availability of resources, and opportunities for collaboration and decision-making. Not only are students negatively impacted by the instability that accompanies high turnover rates, attrition negatively impacts teachers’ morale.

A study of North Carolina public schools published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis found that school principals—even more than salary—are the single most important influence on working conditions. Like Dewey Hensley at Atkinson, educational leaders with a vision have the power to transform their schools for teachers and students.

Make a Difference as a School Leader

Ultimately, successful school leadership creates an environment where teachers and students thrive. Either directly or indirectly, school leaders influence and execute the five strategies that bolster teacher retention. Leaders set hiring practices, support structures for new teachers, and define working conditions at their schools. Although school leadership does not directly control salaries and compensation or cost of entry, strong leaders are uniquely positioned to advocate for their teachers at the state and local levels.

Mills College, known for its strong commitment to public service, offers an online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership program that prepares educators to create effective environments for teaching and learning. Mills’s unique curriculum focuses on collaborative leadership and implementing organizational change at all levels—from the school to the state. By offering courses online, the program reduces the barriers to entry for working students and students not located in the Bay Area. To learn more, visit Mills College’s online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership.

How to Be a Transformational Leader in Education

Effective Leadership Styles Used in Education

Ethical Leadership: What Is It, and How Can We Master It?


The Atlantic, “A Root Cause of the Teacher-Diversity Problem”

Economic Policy Institute, “The Teacher Shortage Is Real, Large and Growing, and Worse Than We Thought”

Education Matters, “Teacher Retention Initiative”

Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, “How Much Do School Principals Matter When It Comes to Teacher Working Conditions?”

Educators for Excellence, “Key for Retention: How Mentoring Relationships Keep Teachers in the Classroom”

The Hechinger Report, “How Do We Stop the Exodus of Minority Teachers?”

Learning Policy Institute, “A Coming Crisis in Teaching?”

Learning Policy Institute, “Diversifying the Teaching Profession: How to Recruit and Retain Teachers of Color”

Learning Policy Institute, “The Role of Principals in Addressing Teacher Shortages”

Learning Policy Institute, “Teacher Turnover: Why It Matters and What We Can Do About It”

National Center for Educational Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics

The 74 Million, “As Schools Diversify, Principals Remain Mostly White — and 5 Other Things We Learned This Summer About America’s School Leaders”

The Education Trust, “Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflections from Black Teachers”

The New York Times, “Good Leaders Make Good Schools”

The Street, “What Is the Average Income in the U.S.?”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Elementary, Middle, and High School Principals