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Five Questions For … University of Michigan Researcher Matthew Ronfeldt, On The Effects Of Teacher Turnover On School Communities

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University of Michigan researcher Matthew Ronfeldt — along with Susanna Loeb (Stanford University) and Jim Wyckoff (University of Virginia) — examined New York City test-score data from 4th and 5th graders over the course of eight years to determine the effect of turnover on student achievement. He spoke with EWA about the study’s findings, possible implications for programs like Teach For America, and broadening the discussion of how turnover affects a school community.

1. How does this study take the turnover effect question to the next level?

One of the ways to look at the effect of teacher turnover is to consider changes in the distribution of the quality of teachers – if the replacement teacher is higher quality than the “leaver,” then turnover probably has a positive effect on student achievement. If the replacement teacher is worse than the person being replaced, the effect is negative.

We were interested in knowing whether there was an additional disruptive effect of the turnover on the teachers who actually stayed at the school from one year to the next. In this scenario, the “stayers” are really just observers of the process. They should arguably go unaffected by the turnover. However, we found that the students of the “stayer” teachers performed worse in years when turnover was higher. This suggested turnover had a disruptive influence to all of the individuals in the organization.

2. Were there any surprises in the study?

Perhaps the biggest surprise was discovering no one had studied whether turnover had a direct effect on student achievement. In policy reports, policy reviews and literature reviews, there was often an assumption that turnover was harmful. But there was little empirical evidence to back that up. There’s correlational evidence in that schools with higher turnover typically have lower student achievement, but a third factor, like principal turnover, might explain this relationship. In our study we found the negative effects of turnover to be biggest in low-performing schools and those with high populations of black students.

3. Are the “stayers” affected because morale drops, or because they no longer have veteran colleagues to turn to for help?

We don’t know the specific causal mechanism by which turnover is impacting student achievement. But before we can even go down that road we had to demonstrate that there was a direct effect.

4. How might this study be used as a lens to evaluate the usefulness of programs like Teach For America that recruit individuals for two-year stints and thus have high turnover rates built into the operating model?

On average, turnover is harmful to student achievement. That said, there could be some programs that are supplying more effective teachers from the start. So in determining the net effect of a program, one has to consider how effective are the teachers who are being supplied to the schools as well as what’s the cost when they leave.

There is an additional issue here. We do know there are gains in effectiveness simply by staying in the profession, particularly during the first five years. So, that also has to be a consideration in determining a program’s long-term potential effectiveness.

5. How do you hope this study will be used?

What I hope that we’ve contributed to discussions about turnover is that we can’t simplify the issue to one of comparing the effectiveness of teachers who leave to the ones who replace them. We have to consider additional organizational disruptions.

There are certainly questions I have for future research – What specifically is getting disrupted in the link between turnover and student achievement? Is it collaborations (among teachers) being broken up? Is it the loss of community? Are there simply more financial and resource costs that come with hiring people over and over again? We’ve opened the door enough to say that there is an impact of turnover but there’s still a lot more to discover about why it’s happening.