Key differences shape best and worst states for teachers

According to a study done by WalletHub, experts point to several factors district leaders should be considering when trying to retain and recruit educators.
By: | September 21, 2020
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On Monday, personal finance website WalletHub released its annual publication of “Best and Worst States for Teachers”. There are those that provide competitive salaries to educators and others that don’t. There are states where teacher turnover is high and states where the teacher-pupil ratio is low.

Beyond the data and lists, which are based on 25 indicators of “teacher-friendliness”, WalletHub tapped education experts for guidance to school district leaders on two important topics: how to attract and retain the best teachers and key measures on implementing remote or in-person learning.

Their words of advice may help to address and meet teacher needs during this unprecedented time, as COVID-19 continues to present them with new challenges and added pressure to perform well in classroom and beyond.

“There are clear things school districts can do to recruit high-quality teachers, including strategic recruitment and advertising efforts, partnerships with local teacher preparation programs, and hiring bonuses,” Christopher Redding, assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Florida, said in the study. “To reduce teacher shortages, however, promoting teacher retention is perhaps even more important. A growing research consensus suggests that positive working conditions are the most important factor in shaping teacher retention.”

According to the report, the states of Washington, Utah and New Jersey are doing their best, leading the pack in providing opportunities for teachers as well as motivating work environments. Delaware and Pennsylvania also rank high on the Best States list. At the other end, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Arizona, Maine and Louisiana are struggling to make the grade.

Digging deeper into two key metrics that directly impact teachers – salaries and lowest pupil-teacher ratio – several states also perform well. Adjusted for cost of living, Michigan provides its public school teachers with the highest annual salary at $66,428, while Maine, Florida and Arizona rank at the bottom. Vermont ranks best in pupil-teacher rate at 10.50-1, beating out Maine and North Dakota. Arizona, meanwhile, has the highest ratio at 23.53, followed by California and Utah.

Putting teacher needs on the table

WalletHub’s ranking of all 50 states and the District of Columbia was based on a slew of factors that affect teachers, from financial considerations – pensions, potential income growth and tenure – to school environments – reopening plans, digital learning, accessible technologies, quality of school system and spending per student.

Although some districts do better than others in trying to meet teacher needs, many educators nonetheless feel overwhelmed by their new learning environments (hybrid, remote and even in-person), the safety guidelines that go with them and the increased need to ensure students are achieving at high levels. That has been exacerbated by historically low incomes.

More than those factors, according to one expert in the report, is the fact that teachers are being tasked with duties that take them beyond classroom teaching.

“Surveys of why people choose the teaching profession consistently ranking things like ‘making a difference in the lives of children’ and “rewarding work” as two of the main reasons people want to teach,” said Christopher Tienken of Seton Hall University’s College of Education and Human Services. “The climate of conformity undermines teachers’ abilities to make a difference and it makes the work less rewarding. Standardization has the effect of turning teachers into automatons rather than instructional leaders. Many teachers feel trapped by the system … because it does not allow students to develop as unique individuals.”

The unfortunate result has led some teachers to retire or walk away from positions and seek employment elsewhere.

So how can school districts turn it around?

Finding a middle ground for discussion can be difficult, but one expert on the panel says it starts with leaders listening and understanding teacher needs.

“The best way to attract and retain teachers is by addressing teacher concerns,” noted Alan Singer, professor of teaching, learning and technology at Hofstra University. “Can I support my family? Will my professionalism be respected? Will my voice be heard? Are teachers allowed to bargain collectively and will we have a contract that ensures our rights and welfare?”

One of the most difficult but essential conversations also should involve compensation, said Kmt Shockley, professor of educational leadership and policy at Howard University. Cash-strapped districts might have a tough time finding solutions, but he said it is imperative.

“One of the best ways to attract people to anything is to pay well,” Shockley said. “The pay for teachers does not match the amount of qualifications they are required to have and the mandatory tests for teacher certification and continuous re-certification.”

How to bridge the gap

Luis Rodriguez, assistant professor of education leadership at New York University, offered a number of strategies in the study to not only aide district leaders in salary talks but also in recruiting and retaining the best talent.

Like Shockley, he said it is important to look at financial compensation for teachers. WalletHub’s authors also noted that compensation was one of the factors weighted more heavily in its ranking because it leads to increased job satisfaction.

Rodriguez suggested “raising salary minimum and integrating compensation differentials based on teacher qualifications, teacher performance, and teachers taking on additional leadership responsibilities within their school.” He also pointed to under-compensation, which can drive good teachers out of the field. One thing that might help keep them around: the development of loan forgiveness programs.

Districts struggling to attract teachers, should look at Grow Your Own programs along with partnerships with local higher education institutions, he said. Rodriguez also mentioned the value of mentorship programs, professional development and even prep programs for principals.

Redding at the University of Florida, says that districts and officials need to look within their schools to better serve the teachers who lead their classrooms.

“That school-level conditions matter so much for whether a teacher decides to stay or leave their current school points to the critical role that school administrators play in promoting a positive working environment,” he said.

As for one of the issues most affecting teachers this fall – the decision between remote learning vs. in-person – it should involve all parties from district leaders on down, Singer at Hofstra says.

“The first and most important step is a collaboration between school and district administrators, teachers, other staff, and parents,” Singer said. “When all stakeholders are on the same page, something like this goes much smoother. The second thing is to respect science. Decisions must be made based on medical concerns for the health and safety of the entire community.”


Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for District Administration. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com