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Mentoring is crucial to keeping teachers in the classroom

The most effective way to address teacher attrition is not by raising pay or reducing class sizes, but through mentoring programs.
The most effective way to address teacher attrition is not by raising pay or reducing class sizes, but through mentoring programs.
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We were pleased to see the Deseret News provide helpful insight on teacher retention in its recent editorial (“Teacher retention — a major concern for Utah,” June 13). There was much in that editorial that should be considered by policymakers. The Utah Priorities surveys we conduct during election years show Utah voters consistently ranking public education among their top concerns, and the problem of teacher attrition in public schools affects Utah as it does most of America. In the editorial, the Deseret News cited Utah Foundation Research from 2007, and we would like to clarify the findings of that report.

When Utah Foundation published the report on teacher attrition, Utah was experiencing a growing rate of teachers leaving the profession in the first three to five years. This was adding to significant teacher shortages and likely harming educational quality. Nationally, only 50 percent of teachers were thought to be staying on the job for more than five years. Those were the years of a red-hot economy, right before the Great Recession. It was easy to find other work at the time, and that surely influenced some of the rise in teachers leaving the classroom. Today’s estimates are much better, with the editorial citing a 70 percent retention rate nationally.

The Utah Foundation report reviewed national research showing that high teacher turnover harms students in three ways: creating teacher shortages, increasing the number of inexperienced teachers in classrooms and increasing inequity because the highest rates of attrition occur at schools impacted by poverty — schools that need the most help to succeed.

To address teacher attrition, our report evaluated four alternatives: raising pay for all teachers, raising pay for those types of teachers experiencing shortages (such as secondary science teachers), reducing class sizes (to improve working conditions) and providing strong mentoring programs for new teachers. We evaluated each alternative by cost effectiveness, equity in the distribution of teachers across student populations, equity in the treatment of teachers, ability to compensate teachers according to working conditions and opportunity costs and ease of implementation. Our analysis concluded that the best results would come from mentoring programs, which scored high in all of the criteria except ease of implementation.

It is sometimes said that teaching is an ironically lonely profession, since interactions with peers in the school workplace can be fewer than in other professions. New teachers especially need these interactions as well as guidance in how to hone their skills to meet the challenges of this demanding career. Studies show that well-crafted training and mentoring programs reduce teacher attrition in the early years of the career while simultaneously improving teaching quality.

In dealing with the budgetary impacts of the Great Recession, funding for teacher development programs was cut from the state budget. That money has not yet been restored, but Utah schools saw significant increases in overall funding in the last legislative session. We hope to see some of that used for increased efforts in training and mentoring. That will help increase teacher quality and reduce the rate of turnover among new teachers.

Stephen J. Hershey Kroes is president of the Utah Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research group.