Keeping Our Best Teachers

Tennessee Department of Education

Tennessee Department of Education


At the Tennessee Department of Education, we believe that data and research should inform every aspect of our work. Our Office of Research and Policy  provides us with the internal capacity to carry out in-depth analysis that looks at the impacts of department policies on students and teachers. Our hope is that these findings can influence practices across the state to help Tennessee students achieve at new levels.

In this post, the department’s director of research and policy, Nate Schwartz, explains how new research from the department on teacher retention can provide valuable lessons for Tennessee schools and districts.

By Nate Schwartz, Director of Research and Policy

In Tennessee, we talk a lot about the importance of putting every child in front of a great teacher. Sometimes these discussions can make it easy to forget how many highly effective teachers we already have across the state. Last year, around 35 percent of teachers received the highest rating on Tennessee’s multiple measure teacher evaluation system. Convincing our best teachers to remain in the classroom and continue their important work year after year is one of the most important things that we can do for the students of our state.

The teacher training and education policy organization, TNTP, described the urgent need for districts to practice “smart retention” in a report called The Irreplaceables. This report called on districts to focus on strategically retaining their most effective teachers, carefully monitoring retention rates for teachers at all effectiveness levels, and finding innovative ways to keep the best teachers in the classroom.

Our new teacher retention and effectiveness white paper, available here, fills in the picture by describing the landscape of teacher retention and effectiveness specifically in Tennessee.

The white paper suggests that, as a state, we have a year-to-year teacher retention rate that is slightly below the national average, although our rate goes up when we look only at our more effective teachers. Still, the variation at the district level is startling. Nearly 40 districts in 2012-13 had higher retention rates for teachers who received performance ratings “below expectations” than for teachers who scored in the top two performance tiers.

Data from the TELL Tennessee survey on teacher working conditions provides additional insight into the differences between schools that are most and least successful at retaining effective teachers. Schools where teachers say that they have sufficient non-instructional time, minimal interruptions, and are protected from duties that interfere with their teaching role have retention rates that are more than 10 percentage points higher than schools where teachers are not receiving these supports. Schools where teachers say that the teacher evaluation process is consistent, objective, and focused on feedback retain effective teachers at rates more than 12 percentage points higher than those where teachers disagree.

The analysis also turns up some other surprising facts. For example, level 5 racial/ethnic minority teachers were almost 20 percentage points less likely to remain at the same school between 2012 and 2013 compared to all level 5 teachers. This is particularly troubling in a state where the share of minority teachers in the classroom is already far lower than the share of minority students.

The current white paper provides a baseline set of data that we plan to update in coming years, including more information about retention over time and more research on particularly successful retention strategies. Particularly as districts begin implementing initiatives focused on new teacher leader roles, alternative salary schedules, and hard-to-staff stipends through their differentiated pay plans in 2014-15, we hope to learn much more about how to retain and learn from the many top-notch educators we have across our state.

Download the complete research report.