(Photo illustration by Hal Marie Haga/AfroLA; Photo credits: Dreamstime, iStock, Vecteezy, Adobe Stock, Unsplash, Freepik)

L.A. teachers propose salary incentives, support systems to increase retention

Amidst the teacher shortage gripping the nation, California’s school districts, especially those serving low-income students, grapple with a pressing concern: retaining their staff. 

The reverberations of turnover are keenly felt in student achievement within the districts left behind, giving rise to disruptions in learning dynamics and a sense of fractured community.

A nexus of burnout, political pressures, increased responsibilities and inadequate salaries stands out as the primary reasons driving teachers away. Notably, younger educators and those with less tenure are more likely to switch teaching positions or depart from the profession entirely.

While the state has allocated $1.6 billion since 2016 to address the shortage crisis, teachers continue to face the challenges of modest compensation and mounting stress.

More challenges for teachers of color

“As a society, we benefit from having teachers of color,” said Kai Mathews, director of the California Educator Diversity Project. “But, the environment in which we’re asking them to work in and to exist in is still not shaped with them in mind.”

Teachers of color, in particular, have a higher turnover rate, with 19% leaving their positions annually, compared to 15% for their white counterparts. This trend is exacerbated by the additional burdens often shouldered without compensation, such as serving as a translator for students and parents who aren’t native English speakers or advocating for a more diverse curriculum.

The challenges do not end there. A recent survey from UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools and the California Teachers Association reported that 62% of Black teachers and 54% of Asian American/Pacific Islander teachers have experienced racial discrimination in their current positions. Such experiences contribute to feelings of isolation, ultimately leading to higher rates of turnover among teachers of color.

The impact of turnover extends beyond teachers; students of color also bear the weight. Diverse staff not only facilitates better academic performance but also fosters a sense of belonging and motivation in the classroom. A 2018 study by John Hopkins University found that Black students who had one Black teacher by third grade were 13% more likely to enroll in college, while those who had two were 32% more likely.

Financial incentives for retention

One approach to tackling turnover begins with pay.

Public school teachers earn about 20% less in weekly wages than similarly educated professionals. According to a Learning Policy Institute report released last year, school districts should address teacher compensation by increasing wages, and offering stipends and bonuses, especially for hard-to-fill positions or for those teaching at schools in low-income areas.

Related: L.A. County doesn’t have enough teachers. Low pay and burnout aren’t helping the problem

While some districts may not have enough money to sustain salary increases for multiple years,  sign on bonuses or stipends can still assist with retention, said Tuan Nguyen, assistant professor in the College of Education at Kansas State University.

Mathews, a former teacher, suggests that setting a minimum base salary could also be a solution to make sure all educators are fairly compensated.

A Black professor holds a handmade sign that exclaims that Black Educators Matter.
Kai Mathews, research director for the California Educator Diversity Project and a professor at UCLA, holds a handmade sign. (Richard H. Grant/AfroLA)

The American Teacher Act, introduced in the House of Representatives last year, proposed a $60,000 minimum salary for every public school teacher in the U.S. Additionally, the law would empower the Department of Education to run a campaign to raise awareness about the importance of teachers and the teaching profession.

Steve Rivkin, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, believes that offering substantial salary incentives to effective teachers could promote retention and encourage good teaching practices.

“When I think about turnover, I’m always worried about who’s leaving,” said Rivkin. “I think that turnover can be disruptive, but I think the important thing is…who are they attracting? Who are they retaining?”

“The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”

The Dallas Independent School District has moved away from a traditional salary scale. In 2014, DISD began evaluating teachers based on student performance, observations from supervisors and feedback from students and families. Teachers’ salaries are determined by their average evaluation scores over the past two years, and they only face a salary reduction if they consistently receive low ratings for three years in a row.

Maria Garcia Villalobos, a first-grade teacher at L.L. Hotchkiss Elementary School in Dallas, has noticed a correlation between the performance-based incentive system and the academic growth her students have shown during her 14 years of teaching.

Garcia Villalobos considers the system effective in retaining teachers and prefers it to the traditional salary system based on a teacher’s years of service. The performance-based system, she said, helps teachers reach higher salaries and results in students’ academic progress in a shorter amount of time. While she recognizes that it is impossible to perfectly calculate the effectiveness of a teacher, she believes that Dallas’s system is close to a fair measurement. 

This system helped enhance and sustain student achievement in the district’s most disadvantaged schools, according to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research. It also helped improve overall teacher retention within the district.

“I do recognize that the [performance-based] system is stressful and exciting at the same time, because you see your compensation for doing an outstanding job,” said Garcia Villalobos. “It is a source of extra motivation, not just to see the growth in the students, you also see the growth in your financial income.”

Addressing cost of living and housing challenges

California’s high costs of living significantly contributes to the challenge of retaining teachers. For many educators, expensive neighborhoods in certain districts compel them to decline teaching positions or undertake grueling daily commutes. 

Related: Leaving for greener pastures: Why South San Francisco High School teachers move to neighboring districts

According to UCLA’s survey, 80% of California teachers said it is difficult to find affordable housing near their place of employment, while 68% said it is hard for them to keep up with basic expenses, the cost of living and to save for retirement.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than in Los Angeles County, where soaring rent prices are compounded by a lack of reliable and efficient public transportation, intensifying the strain of the daily trek.

By comparison, living in New York City is even more expensive, but the extensive subway system allows teachers to commute more easily, even from out of state. They can use this travel time for class preparation and grading. On the other hand, teachers in L.A. are faced with crowded freeways and hours in their cars each day, or they’re forced to shell out more to reside closer to their schools.

Nick Melvoin, a member of Los Angeles Unified’s school board, supports building housing for teachers. “As the second largest employer and one of the largest landowners in L.A. County, L.A. Unified is also uniquely situated to support our workforce and our students with affordable housing opportunities,” wrote Melvoin in a May op-ed for Los Angeles Daily News.

LAUSD has already made strides in this direction. To date, three apartment complexes, with a total of 185 units, have been built on district-owned land.

Melvoin said staff housing effectively lightens the financial burden on educators by slashing living costs, shortening commute times and fostering stronger ties between staff and the communities they serve.

Although some criticize staff housing as a Band-Aid solution to the issue of low teacher pay, Melvoin believes the issues aren’t “mutually exclusive.” He supports raising salaries as well as addressing the issue of affordable housing.

“I think that we have such [an affordable housing] crisis in California that if we can help anybody, I’d be happy to do it,” said Melvoin, regarding workforce housing.

Improving support, respect and recognition for teachers

A fourth-grade teacher with wavy brown hair and grey glasses dressed in a black and yellow Wonder Woman t-shirt smiles for the camera.
Rosemarie McCabe pictured on her school’s Superhero Day. (Courtesy Rosemarie McCabe)

In UCLA’s survey, teachers identified burnout as the top reason for turnover. More in-classroom support could help. The stress not only affects teachers’ own well-being but also has a direct impact on the quality of education and support they can offer to their students.

Rosemarie McCabe, a fourth-grade teacher at Thomas Edison Elementary in Glendale, remembers having multiple classroom aides when she first started teaching. Such support is now scarce, she said, even as class sizes continue to grow. 

A significant number of educators say they are departing the profession because of a lack of respect for what they do.

The U.S. is ranked No. 16 out of 35 countries representing every continent for respect toward the teaching profession, according to the 2018 Global Teacher Status Index. China topped the list, with Malaysia and Taiwan in second and third place. 

Moreover, the report finds a direct correlation between increased perceptions of teachers and their social status with student achievement based on an international study on 15-year-olds’ performance in math, science and reading.

“This index finally gives academic proof to something that we’ve always instinctively known: the link between the status of teachers in society and the performance of children in school. Now we can say beyond doubt that respecting teachers isn’t only an important moral duty—it’s essential for a country’s educational outcomes.”

"The higher the respect for teachers, the more likely a person is to encourage their child to enter the profession."

Voices from the Classroom: Developing a Strategy for Teacher Retention and Recruitment

Paying teachers a more sustainable salary is key to student outcomes. The index ranks the U.S. 18th for teacher pay in relationship to student performance, the first country on the list whose score dips below 40 out of a possible 100. For comparison, China scores 100.0 and Malaysia comes in at 93.3.

Megan Bart, L.A. Deputy Director of Campaigns of Educators for Excellence. (Courtesy Megan Bart)

Mistreatment by students and disrespect from parents are also contributing factors to teacher turnover. Oftentimes, teachers are caught in the crossfire of political debates between parents and school administrators, which add more strain to an already demanding job.

Megan Bart, L.A. Deputy Director of Campaigns of Educators for Excellence, said teachers want more societal respect for their profession. She said she recently spoke to teachers who were happy their pay was increasing, but still felt that respect and dignity for the profession was lacking.

“They're not just a teacher,” said Bart, “They're also a therapist, a social worker, a counselor, and having to do the administrative work of their profession as well.”

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