Teacher Turnover in High-Poverty Schools: What We know and Can Do

Mar. 01, 2015

Source: Teachers College Record, Volume 117, No.3, March 2015
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This paper presents an alternative explanation for turnover—one grounded in organizational theory and substantiated by an emerging line of research. In doing so, it reframes the debate over what fuels high rates of teacher turnover in high-poverty schools and provides advice for policy makers and practitioners.

This paper reviews six studies analyzing turnover as a function of school context rather than as a function of student demographics.
Based on the patterns regarding what factors influence teacher departures across these studies, the authors pursue these predictors by summarizing what is known about them and how each supports teachers’ work.


The review suggests that teachers who leave high-poverty schools are not fleeing their students. Rather, they are fleeing the poor working conditions that make it difficult for them to teach and for their students to learn. The working conditions that teachers prize most—and those that best predict their satisfaction and retention—are social in nature. They include school leadership, collegial relationships, and elements of school culture.

Implications for Policy and Practice

Although factors such as salary and work hours matter to teachers, working conditions that are social in nature likely supersede marginal improvements to pay or teaching schedules in importance. Teachers who leave their schools routinely report dissatisfaction with their administration as a chief reason.
Therefore, improving the caliber of principals in high-poverty schools would be a high-leverage approach for districts intent on retaining teachers.
Principal preparation and professional development programs should focus on the managerial, social, instructional, and political skills that school leaders will need to succeed in high-poverty schools. Experienced principals who are struggling should be given ongoing support but be dismissed if they fail to meet the difficult demands of school leadership today. It is important to recognize that turnover patterns among principals mirror those of teachers. Like teachers, novice principals are often placed in schools serving poor, minority, and low-achieving students, and as principals gain experience, they tend to either leave the profession or transfer to schools with more favorable working conditions—and, not surprisingly, fewer disadvantaged students.

In high-poverty schools, principals and school-level teams might be given the final say in hiring decisions so that they can cultivate teams of teachers who have shared goals and purposes as well as the collective skill set needed to get the work done.


The poor working conditions common in America’s neediest schools explain away most, if not all, of the relationship between student characteristics and teacher attrition. This is important because, unlike demographic characteristics of students, working conditions can be addressed. Policy makers and practitioners have many options for improving aspects of the school environment, and, although more research can inform this work, much is already known about what matters to teachers as they are deciding whether to continue teaching in their schools.

Updated: Mar. 08, 2017