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Maintaining a consistent level of teachers on staff in terms of both quantity and quality is becoming an increasingly challenging goal for school and school district administrators throughout the United States. National teacher movement data suggests that both hiring and retaining good teachers is, for a variety of factors, becoming tougher.

In recent years, education researchers have focused on the issue of teacher movement more diligently and studies have been conducted to find the reasons for teacher movement. Teacher mobility, retention, and attrition have emerged as familiar terms within the education field. Teacher mobility typically describes the movement of teachers between schools or districts, while retention and attrition describe whether teachers stay or leave schools or districts.

To help stakeholders learn more about these and other terms, REL Central created the video Teacher Retention, Mobility, and Attrition: Understanding Terminology. The video provides an overview of the language associated with teacher movement, stressing the importance of perspective when using such language.

Additionally, as part of the Educator Pipeline Research Alliance, REL Central conducted a study to examine rural and nonrural teacher movement in public school systems in Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and South Dakota, all of which have high proportions of rural districts and schools.

Using administrative data provided by state education agencies, the study found that teacher movement statistics were similar to national findings while also varying substantially across districts within the four states. These findings were compiled in the report Teacher Retention, Mobility and Attrition in Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and South Dakota.

After the report was published, REL Central staff members traveled to the states from which data was drawn in order to discuss the findings with various stakeholders. Following a pair of meetings in South Dakota and Nebraska, Colorado education administrators and practitioners with a vested interest in the subject met to discuss and interpret the report and data.

“The meeting was really valuable to me, personally, but also to all of the other folks I spoke with, because it allowed us to spend some quality time understanding the findings and talking them through,” said Carolyn Haug, director of research and impact at the Colorado Department of Education. “It gave us the opportunity that we really so rarely have to think deeply about what the findings mean to us, and to hear what they mean to other stakeholders, which I think is really key.”

Barbara Seidl, associate dean of teacher education and undergraduate experiences at the University of Colorado, Denver, echoed Haug’s sentiments: “The REL data offered us a more nuanced look at teacher retention, especially in rural areas, where it was possible to see patterns of movement between small rural areas and small towns and between more and less resourced districts.” Seidl added, “While the data didn’t answer all of our questions, it allowed us to ask more sophisticated questions regarding what it might take to retain teachers in high need districts.”

Providing multiple partners with a chance to review various findings was generally seen to have given the report greater meaning and weight within the parameters of an applied setting. This approach also facilitated a more dynamic understanding of the various factors related to teacher movement and will hopefully help administrators develop more effective strategies for dealing with this issue moving forward.

“Teacher retention is a major issue in our state and using research-based data to work towards improving retention levels in rural areas is helpful,” said Andrew Crispin of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. “Seeing these areas as being a part of a spectrum and letting us tailor our program to reflect this is beneficial to our efforts to help alleviate some of the teacher shortages we’ve experienced in various parts of the state.”

The REL Central infographic Teacher Mobility in Rural Settings outlines the unique challenges that school administrators face outside of urban settings. The corresponding study found that teachers were indeed less likely to move to rural districts and that most teachers who transferred from rural districts moved to nonrural districts.

“It’s powerful to have a discussion regarding the results of hugely valuable studies such as these,” said Haug. “Different interpretations spark different ideas while the correlations of the various patterns we’re seeing definitely form new ways of thinking about these interconnected issues. These reports and the discussion of their content is incredibly helpful to the formulation of retention strategies such as mentoring, coaching, housing, and more.”

Teacher retention strategies are outlined in the REL Central Webinar Understanding What Influences Teacher Mobility, a recording of which can be found HERE.