Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

The Teacher Turnover Trap

Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

At California schools with many students living in poverty, working conditions are challenging, especially for newer teachers. Novices might start their careers at these schools, but they often move on to schools in more affluent communities after picking up a few years of experience. The turnover leaves fewer experienced teachers at high-poverty schools, where students need them most.

Poverty obstructs learning in insidious ways. Students coming to school without having had breakfast that morning or dinner the night before have trouble focusing in class. The traumas of eviction and homelessness can cause students to act out. Students living in poverty are also more likely to be absent from school.

All these outcomes contribute to a persistent achievement gap: Students in high-poverty schools are more likely to be behind grade level in reading and math and less likely to graduate high school and attend college. The exodus of experienced educators from high-poverty schools exacerbates that gap by depriving the highest-need students of a critical resource.

Yet there are powerful forces defending key components of the status quo. Chief among them is the state teachers’ union, which opposes the idea of awarding teachers bonus pay to stay in tougher classrooms — arguing instead that teachers in all classrooms deserve a raise.

This series examines the research, politics and people behind the push to keep more veteran teachers in the schools where students struggle most. “The Turnover Trap” continues at a time when educators are working to reverse the academic and mental health tolls of the pandemic. Students have fallen behind. Is the teaching force at high-poverty schools equipped to help them recover? And if not, what could California do to ensure that in the future, it is?