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Taking a Closer Look at Educator Retention and Turnover in Alaska

By Hella Bel Hadj Amor and Ashley Pierson | January 16, 2020

Hella Bel Hadj Amor
Hella Bel Hadj Amor is an applied research and technical support leader at Education Northwest.

For the past several years, a group of education stakeholders in Alaska has been focusing on the issue of educator retention. These stakeholders participate in the Alaska State Policy Research Alliance, whose goal is to produce and share high-quality evidence that can inform policymaking on some of the most pressing education issues in the state.

At the request of these stakeholders, Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest recently conducted a study to examine trends and relationships in teacher, principal, and superintendent movement in the state. Published in September 2019, the study provides Alaska stakeholders with the most comprehensive, reliable evidence on the topic to date.

REL Northwest researchers looked at data over a six-year period, from 2012/13 to 2017/18. Researchers also conducted interviews with superintendents at eight school districts with higher than average educator retention rates to gather evidence about promising strategies.

Key Findings

During the six-year study period, statewide teacher turnover rates remained steady but high, with approximately 22 percent—or nearly a quarter of the teaching population—leaving their school system each year. These high rates were largely driven by "leavers"-individuals who either left Alaska, left the teaching profession, or both.

Ashley Pierson
Ashley Pierson conducts research and evaluation projects and provides technical assistance to support the use of data and evidence in policy and practice.

Meanwhile, the study also found a link between instability at the school leader level and instability among teachers: Schools with high principal turnover rates also had high teacher turnover rates.

In contrast, superintendent turnover appeared to have little impact on either teacher or principal turnover.

In terms of locale, rural schools in Alaska had much higher teacher and principal turnover during this period than schools in or near urban areas. For example, 36 percent of teachers and 38 percent of principals at the most rural, remote schools left each year, compared to 19 percent of teachers and principals at the most urban schools.

The Issue of Equity

These findings raise serious equity-related concerns. First, students of color-including American Indian/Alaska Native students—and students from high—poverty families are more likely to attend rural schools and therefore are more likely to experience the impact of high educator turnover.

The study also found that teachers who were trained outside Alaska were more likely to leave than "homegrown" teachers-a finding that is also likely to have a disproportionate impact on rural schools, which have higher rates of teachers who come from outside the state.

Looking Ahead

The new study confirms the seriousness of the educator retention problem in Alaska, while also providing evidence that can help legislators, policymakers, and other stakeholders target support to those areas that need it most.

For example, the study clearly points to a need for an increased supply of Alaska-educated teachers, who appear to be better at adapting to the challenging conditions in the state, such as isolation and extreme weather. The interviews with district superintendents support this recommendation.

The study also points to the need for improved working conditions for teachers, especially in rural schools. This includes housing options, financial and other incentives, and opportunities for growth and leadership. As part of this effort, policymakers may want to provide principals with more professional development on how to support teachers and leverage their input.

The Alaska State Policy Research Alliance will be sharing the study findings with the Alaska State Legislature and other stakeholders across the state, as they consider how to address this critical issue.

REL Northwest is proud to serve as a critical partner in this work and will continue to provide research and technical support to ensure stakeholders have the information they need to make the most effective, data-based decisions.