A photo of an empty school classroom.With a significant number of teachers leaving their schools, or even the profession, Sac State has taken the lead in developing approaches to keep those teachers in the classroom. (Sacramento State file)

California’s shortage of classroom teachers is well-documented. The main reason for the shortage, however, isn’t the obvious one.

“Everyone thinks it’s recruiting, but a big component is we’re not retaining the teachers we have,” says Sacramento State Associate Professor of Education Lisa Romero.

The numbers back her up: A 2017 Learning Policy Institute study shows that 90 percent of teacher vacancies nationwide are caused by turnover, with more than two-thirds of those vacancies resulting from teachers leaving before retirement.

Sacramento State is leading an effort to address this critical issue, bringing the region’s stakeholders together to research the problem of teacher retention and begin developing solutions. The Educators Retention Network – made up of the University, the Sacramento County Office of Education, and the county’s 13 school districts – has been meeting regularly since early 2018.

High teacher turnover can have a direct, negative impact on students, creating instability in the classroom and leaving empty positions to be filled by less experienced new hires. Financial consequences are significant; it can cost urban school districts up to $20,000 every time a teacher leaves, the Learning Policy Institute reports, in part because of money a district spent training that teacher.

Sacramento State is poised to lead an effort to retain more teachers, utilizing its role of preparing future teachers and numerous future education experts. In addition, most of the University's students come from the region's K-12 schools, expanding Sac State's perspective.

“We’re the biggest producer of teachers in the region,” said Associate Dean of Education Pia Wong, who has played a big role in organizing the network. “We’re also trying to reframe our relationship with districts around not just the idea that we provide them with personnel, but we can help them solve problems.”

Romero, whose research has helped inform the group’s conversations, says multiple reasons cause teachers to leave a district, or even the profession altogether. In some cases, the decision is purely personal – the need to relocate, for example – or because of a poor career fit. Some leave because the want higher pay or seek career advancement. Also playing a role is the profile of the students, the school climate, or difficult teaching assignments, such as teaching split grade levels, that often go to new teachers.

The network has spent much of the past year considering research and other data such as teacher exit surveys and databases to better understand who is leaving and why.

“The districts and county know this is an issue, because they are very engaged with the work that they do,” Wong said. “But it’s one thing to know because you’re dealing with it every day, and it’s another thing to connect what you know to research and make decisions based on that broader knowledge base, which is what we are helping them to do.”

As the primary support agency for 13 school districts representing more than 240,000 students, the Sacramento County Office of Education has an ongoing interest in teacher retention, said Deputy Superintendent Al Rogers. The county has made changes to its professional development as a result of the network’s discussions, including better equipping teachers to manage and support their students’ social and emotional learning.

With the University facilitating the conversation and the support of the county, Rogers added, districts now have a safe place to come together and share ideas.

“Districts are looking around now, and they’re able to understand more about their responsibility in creating more positive conditions for teachers,” he said. “They didn’t really have a way of understanding that concept before because they didn’t know what the other districts were doing. Now they work very closely with each other.”

Lately, the network has begun moving toward developing and implementing potential strategies and solutions based on the research it has explored over the past year. Shelly Clark, director of personnel with the Elk Grove Unified School District, is part of a subgroup working on a survey aimed at better understanding why teachers leave.

Another goal of the network, Clark said, is exploring how all involved can train, recruit and retain a teacher workforce that is more reflective of Sacramento’s diverse population.

“We want teachers to be skillful, and in order to become skillful, they need time in the position over a number of years,” she said. “Retaining high-quality teachers is really important, not just so we can keep jobs filled, but so we can increase the quality of instruction students have access to.” – Jonathan Morales