Retaining the Dreamkeepers: Leadership Influences on Working Conditions in Minority-Majority Schools

Wooster, Carolyn, Administration and Supervision - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Mitchell, Sandra, CU-Leadshp, Fndns & Pol Studies, University of Virginia


Dr. Sandra P. Mitchell, Advisor

America is failing to invest in the future of its children in significant, consequential ways. Among a host of inequities faced by children of color and low socioeconomic status (American Institutes for Research, 2019; Berliner, 2009; Carrion &Wong, 2012; Rothstein, 2015; Yoshikawa, Aber, & Beardslee, 2012), children of historically minoritized populations are those impacted the most by the large and growing national teacher shortage (Carver-Thomas, 2016; Garcia & Weiss, 2019; Ingersoll, Merrill, & Stuckey, 2018; Podolsky et al., 2016; Sutcher, Darling-Hammond, & Carver-Thomas, 2016).

While many forces contribute to the current national shortage of teachers, the challenge of attrition is the single greatest factor driving the inability to staff classrooms with teachers (Sutcher et al., 2016). Prior research has shown strong correlations between teacher mobility decisions and the nature of the working conditions in which teachers teach; conditions that are often more challenging in schools serving historically marginalized students (Allensworth et al., 2009; Boyd et al., 2011; Johnson et al., 2012; Johnson & Simon, 2015; Ladd, 2011; Loeb, Darling-Hammond, & Luczak, 2005; Marinell & Coca, 2013; Podolsky et al., 2016). Of these working conditions, it is school leadership that emerges as the in-school factor influencing teachers’ working conditions the most (Burkhauser, 2017; Boyd et al., 2011; Grissom, 2011; Kraft et al., 2016; Ladd, 2011; Podolsky et al., 2016).

This study endeavored to better understand teacher attrition problem in the school division of Corolla County. A county whose student population has shifted dramatically in recent years with the community’s rapidly shifting racial demographics, the school division’s teacher attrition rate (10.9%) is the second highest in its state (Maryland Longitudinal Data System Dashboard, 2019). Through a case study of leavers, stayers, and school and district leaders of one elementary school, I explored how leadership practices in the domains of “developing people” and “redesigning the organization” (Leithwood & Louis, 2012) could best interact to meet teachers’ intrinsic motivational needs (Herzberg, 1968; Ryan & Deci, 2000) and drive their desire to persist in their work.

A construct of nine elements of working conditions, drawn from prominent studies in the field (Johnson et al., 2012; Ladd, 2011; Podolsky et al., 2016), framed the study. Using a mixed-methods case study approach, I triangulated survey and interview data from stayers, leavers, and school and district leaders of a minority-majority elementary school. Surveys with stayers and leavers from this high-attrition suburban elementary school provided descriptive statistics on the experience of working conditions in the school. Following the survey, interviews provided more detailed description of these experiences, and interviews with leaders provided insight into their perceptions on the practices and challenges that influenced working conditions in their organization.

The results of these analyses have informed findings, recommendations, and action communication products in the hopes of improving teaching retention in minority-majority schools. Primary findings included:
1. The migration of human capital from the study school to schools serving fewer minoritized students negatively impacted Freewill Elementary.
2. Relationships were critical to teacher satisfaction. Teacher satisfaction at Freewill was enhanced by strong relationships between colleagues and leaders, and diminished by less strong connections with students’ families and a sense of mission for teachers’ work.
3. Student behavior had a substantial negative influence on teacher working conditions at Freewill, particularly among leavers.
4. The teachers’ working environment at Freewill Elementary was significantly shaped by normative dimensions of state and local accountability policies, influencing the core of instruction itself.
5. There was tension between desires for competence and autonomy in advancing the school’s improvement. Teachers and leaders often lacked the supportive communities of practice, leadership development, or access to coaching and mentoring that would promote the optimal development of human capacity in the system.

From these five findings, five recommendations were offered for practitioners in Corolla County Schools. These included:
1. Incentivize the recruitment of talent to high-needs schools.
2. Prioritize the cultivation of trust throughout the system.
3. Employ practices of improvement science to target high-leverage change drivers such as student behavior.
4. Develop transformative visions of instruction and supportive instructional guidance infrastructure to achieve the vision.
5. Build a comprehensive system of adult development, helping to develop the system’s adults, with all their various talents and motivations, to their fullest capacities.

EDD (Doctor of Education)
teacher retention , leadership, working conditions, minority-majority schools
Issued Date: