Recent doctoral program graduate examines retention of new teachers

Jim Carlson
June 09, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Zoë Mandel says her passion lies in keeping teachers in their jobs because she didn’t stay in hers.

With a recently defended dissertation (June 4) in Penn State’s Education Leadership Program within the College of Education’s Department of Education Policy Studies, Mandel believes teaching is a difficult profession and that policy shifts can and should occur to support new educators.

Her dissertation was partially funded through a grant from the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and National Science Foundation. Her adviser was Ed Fuller, associate professor of education (educational leadership) in the Department of Education Policy Studies.

She presented twice at the AERA virtual conference in April. Her topics were: “Principals as Managers: Exploring the Relationship Between Beginning Teacher Course Assignment and Retention” and “Retaining Special Education Teachers: Examining the Impact of School Leaders with Prior Special Education Experience.”

The first study examined how schedules of first-year teachers are associated with turnover for newly hired high school teachers, and preliminary results revealed an association between teacher course load and attrition, however these results were not statistically significant, she said. The latter examined whether an association between a school principal’s experience and/or certification in special education and teacher turnover exists.

Mandel said data show a small association between course overload and teacher retention. “In this analysis, I looked at teachers who were teaching more than what was average, and the average was about two classes per teacher, so I was primarily looking at, what about teachers who are teaching three or more classes, and consistent with what we hypothesize those teachers were leaving at higher rates,” she said.

Teachers with less than three courses had about 3% higher odds of returning, her research showed. “Which seems like a pretty small number but that's also after controlling for a lot of things that cause teachers to leave … like, the type of school that they're placed in, the type of classes that they teach,” she said. 

“Consistent with the literature, science teachers are more likely to leave; math teachers are more likely to leave, compared to English teachers who are more likely to stay. After controlling for the things that may cause first-year teachers to leave, we still find about 3% higher odds of not returning.”

While the research remains exploratory, it is practically significant, Mandel said. “We have control for a large variety of variables that do contribute to teacher turnover, so all of those things being held constant, I'm comparing two very similar teachers — that teacher with one more class, their workload leads to 3% lower odds of returning,” she said.

Mandel, who is an analyst for The New Teacher Project in Atlanta, noted that existing literature shows that the biggest teacher shortages are in special education. “So not only do we have trouble retaining special education teachers, but we have issues recruiting them. And we have issues with people who start their career in special education, and then move to another subject area after a few years,” she said. 

“They will teach special education for a couple of years and then go and teach English. That's actually what I taught; it requires a lot of specialization, a lot of differentiation, but with that paper I was looking at the characteristics of the school leader and whether they actually taught special education or had a certification in special education.”

The theory behind that, Mandel said, was special education teachers who become school leaders have a wide variety of experience that might make them a better school leader; special education teachers get trained in a general sense, so they are expected to have familiarity with all the content areas.

“I think sometimes we give blanket concepts for teachers to do and that doesn't apply to special education teachers. The hypothesis behind that was that school leaders with special education certification or teaching experience would be better able to retain these teachers because they understand what it looks like to differentiate learning,” Mandel said. 

Since AERA, Mandel conducted an interaction term, looking at the combination of the experience and the certification. The results were statistically significant and find that the interaction of both teaching and certification yield approximately 26% higher odds of retention for special education teachers. Across all of the models the certification was negative, citing that principals with only a special education certification were less likely to retain teachers, she said.

Mandel expressed surprise that this topic hasn’t been highly studied and concluded that a “disappointing amount” is being done to retain teachers.

“I think schools are in crisis mode still from the pandemic,” she noted. She said some school districts that realize retention is a problem are hiring consultants. “But for the most part, states do not have somebody who works on this; they have data offices, but they don't have people who track retention,” she said.

“I think it's going to take the crisis that I anticipate this next school year, because a lot of teachers retired. It was always an older workforce and our analysis showed that teachers were going to retire and that was going to create a problem. But I think COVID really sped up that timeline of people retiring, and it caused school districts to hire teachers on emergency certifications. I think this next school year is going to be really critical for teacher labor. I think it's going to take that bubble to pop, and schools are going to be at a severe shortage of teachers; schools must focus on keeping people,” Mandel said.

“That’s kind of what the point of my dissertation was — none of the things that I wrote about were very expensive policy shifts. [The research showed that] it doesn't cost much to figure out how to give teachers a better schedule; it doesn't cost much to look at who you're tapping to become a principal and recognizing trends of who is a good leader and who is retaining teachers,” Mandel added.

“Schools just don't do it. I think the solutions are very easy, very doable if we poured resources there, but schools just don't. Schools can't just keep recruiting teachers, and then the teachers leave; the problem isn’t being resolved, it’s just creating a revolving door.”

Mandel earned her bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Georgia and her master’s in special education from St. John’s University in New York City. The College of Education is what attracted her to Penn State to pursue her doctorate.

“I know the kind of learner I am; I need people who are available to me and when I was looking at different programs, Penn State was somewhere I knew I would be supported. I got a lot of support from the faculty; I got exactly what I came to Penn State for,” she said.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated June 15, 2021