Torrence Williams, director of teacher advancement at the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana, leads a professional learning module training for Louisiana’s New Teacher Experience program.
The Regional Educational Labs (REL) program, operated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), supports state education agencies, schools and school districts, and institutions of higher education nationwide in using data and evidence-based practice to improve opportunities and outcome for learners. Operating in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Territories and Freely Associated States of the Pacific region, the REL program brings together the expertise of local communities, top-tier education researchers, and education scientists at IES’s National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE) to address the most vexing problems of education policy and practice in states and regions—on demand and free of charge.
It's not exactly breaking news that many schools in our country struggle to fill vacancies in their teacher workforce. This past fall, IES’s National Center for Education Statistics surveyed public school leaders about staffing challenges as they began the 2022-23 school year. The statistics were sobering: 45 percent of schools reported having at least one vacant position more than one month into the school year, and more than 25 percent of schools reported multiple vacancies. Worryingly, our most underserved students were experiencing this crisis most acutely, with roughly 60 percent of schools in high-poverty neighborhoods or with a high-minority student body reporting at least one vacancy. While all of us anxiously await data on the 2023-24 school year—which should be available later this year—RELs and their state and local partners are working to strengthen all aspects of the teacher pipeline.
In the second of a four-part blog series, we highlight four REL research and development projects that address educator recruitment and retention. Each demonstrates how RELs are leveraging their distinct capacity for innovation, rigorous research, and authentic partnership to deliver locally focused and evidence-based supports to the regions, states, and communities they serve.
Like many rural school districts across the nation, Alaska’s Lower Kuskokwim School District (LKSD) is experiencing a persistent and pressing need to attract and retain educators. Near the start of the 2022-23 school year, 78 positions—nearly one-quarter of all teaching positions in the district—remained unfilled. New teachers were often recruited to the district from other countries such as the Philippines, leading to low retention rates and a constant churn of new educators. Faced with this persistent, high-stakes problem, leadership at LKSD decided to partner with REL Northwest to discover research-based solutions to their teacher recruitment and retention crisis.
REL Northwest is partnering with LKSD to identify evidence-based strategies and tools to continuously monitor and improve working conditions with the goal of increasing teacher retention. To do that, LKSD plans to implement the recommendation of strengthening teacher working conditions from the state's Teacher Retention and Recruitment Plan. As a first step in this partnership, REL Northwest staff reviewed and summarized research on working conditions and teacher retention to identify eight factors that may influence a teacher's decision to stay or leave.
Lower Kuskokwim leaders decided to focus on activities to identify how changes related to three of those factors—supportive school leadership, available time for teachers, and community engagement—may improve working conditions. The first activity will adapt existing LKSD data sources and develop a research-informed tool to monitor teacher perceptions of school leadership and collect further data to inform the district’s action plan.
Staff also identified a school leadership responsibility unique to their district that may affect teacher trust: managing teacher housing. Housing is a major challenge, not only in remote villages without road access, but in many areas of the country. REL Northwest led partners through an activity to brainstorm how school leaders could improve housing and develop a theory of action for how those strategies would improve working conditions and promote retention. The strategies included establishing realistic housing expectations for new teachers, revising the process for leader evaluation of housing needs, and changing the budgeting process to make maintenance needs and upgrades easier. As a result of the work, district leaders are designing a program that allows teachers to apply for district funding to make simple housing upgrades, such as changes in lighting or painting.
REL Central: Strengthening the Teacher Pipeline in South Dakota to alleviate Teacher Shortages
Like many states, South Dakota is experiencing a teacher shortage that has worsened in recent years. Late last year, SDDOE partnered with REL Central to support one component of their response to this challenge: developing new pathways into teaching for candidates such as paraprofessionals and other South Dakota residents who have interest in entering the teacher workforce. Initially, the work focused on the design and implementation of a teacher apprenticeship program designed to support paraprofessionals as they acquire their teaching degrees and as they are mentored to become certified teachers.
In March, REL Central began work with SDDOE on a fast-turnaround project to support the development of a survey for paraprofessionals about their interest in the pilot apprenticeship program and the types of supports they seek from mentor teachers. Within a matter of weeks, the survey was developed and administered to paraprofessionals statewide. With survey data in hand indicating that hundreds of South Dakota paraprofessionals were interested in such a program, the pilot was expanded by SDDOE to support additional slots starting in fall 2023. In the coming months, REL Central will work with SDDOE to further refine this program by incorporating research evidence from other “Grow Your Own” teacher workforce programs on the components of effective mentoring and by helping the state to generate, collect, analyze, and use data from participants to inform further improvements to the pilot apprenticeship program.
The Republic of Palau, like many school systems, has experienced challenges in recruiting and retaining enough teachers to provide every student with a high-quality education. The geographic isolation of Palau compounds these challenges. Many local Palauan teachers do not have a four-year college degree or are teaching outside of their area of certification. As was the case in Alaska’s Lower Kuskokwim School District, one solution has been to bring in teachers from out of the country to fill vacancies; however, the turnover rate of these teachers is very high. The Palau Partnership to Support Teacher Effectiveness–– a collaboration with the Palau Ministry of Education (MOE), Palau Community College (PCC), six private schools, and REL Pacific ––is focused on building more sustainable solutions.
The long-term goals of the partnership include Palau private schools adopting a teacher effectiveness measurement system to support, develop, and retain effective teachers; Palau private schools adopting a systemwide instructional coaching process for improving teacher effectiveness; and Palau MOE and PCC reviewing data on the effects of teacher education programs and making implementation adjustments so that their available resources may be used more effectively and efficiently.
REL Pacific is supporting partner schools to realize their goals by drawing from resources on indicators of successful teacher recruitment and retention as well as best practices of effective teaching. REL Pacific is providing schools training and coaching on data-driven decision-making and plan-do-study-act (PDSA) cycles in the context of the schools’ goals to improve literacy instruction through developing systemic supports for teachers. By incorporating ways of measuring best practices of effective teaching into the schools’ instructional coaching processes, each school will be better able to enact systemic change to address its specific teacher development and retention needs. Additionally, an applied research study is underway that will describe teacher pathways and certification patterns. The findings from this descriptive study will inform future efforts of Palau’s education community to address the new teacher certification requirements and overall educator shortage crisis.
Louisiana’s educator shortage is compounded with low retention rates for early-career teachers. Teachers with 2–5 years of experience left public schools in 2020 at a rate of 30 percent, compared with 17 percent of teachers with 6–10 years of experience. REL Southwest and the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) have formed the Supporting Early Career and Aspiring Teachers (SECAT) partnership to improve supports for novice and aspiring teachers. Through the SECAT partnership, REL Southwest aims to strengthen LDOE’s capacity to use evidence to refine new initiatives that support early career and aspiring teachers, such as the New Teacher Experience program and the Louisiana Pre-Educator Pathway, the state’s largest “Grow Your Own” program. This work builds from a previous partnership between REL Southwest and LDOE focused on exploring and evaluating the early impacts of Louisiana’s Believe and Prepare teacher residency program.
The work of the SECAT partnership kicked off this past spring. Over the next five years, REL Southwest will work with LDOE and school systems in Louisiana to strengthen their capacity to generate and use evidence to refine existing programs for early career and aspiring teachers. In the first year of the partnership, REL Southwest and LDOE partners plan to focus on technical assistance that builds LDOE’s capacity for evaluating the New Teacher Experience. In future years of the partnership, REL Southwest will study LDOE’s efforts to support new and aspiring teachers. Along the way, REL Southwest will share important takeaways, resources, and policy implications related to teacher recruitment and retention learned through the partnership with Louisiana.
Stay tuned for part three of our “Making a Difference” series, focused on school accountability systems. As always, my (virtual) door is open if you have questions about the work highlighted in this blog, or anything else on REL Program. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.