Over the last several years a steady drumbeat of news has been telling the story of why South Carolina teachers are quitting in record numbers. And last month the Post and Courier published a story that generated even more cause for concern. The shortages have “gotten worse” in 2018, as more than 7,300 of the state’s teachers left their posts, a 10 percent increase from the previous year. Drawing on the latest report from the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement (CERRA) at Winthrop University, we also have learned that one in four new recruits to South Carolina’s classrooms leave after just one year. The Pee Dee region, where most schools serve high proportions of high need students, accounts for one-sixth of the state’s teachers yet tallies one-third of its vacancies.

The reasons for teachers’ departures are becoming more well-known. South Carolina teachers report that low salaries prevent them from making ends meet. And they point to top-down policies that keep them from teaching effectively — including pressures to teach to excessive numbers of standardized tests undermining the creative approaches they seek to use with students. In the Post and Courier article, Saani Perry, a fourth-year teacher in the Fort Mill School District, reported that his teaching job causes “whiplash of a sort.” The time he needs to serve diverse students and create more customized lessons for them are stymied by an array of organizational mandates and redundancies.

Perhaps the good news is that these challenges to recruiting and retaining teachers are not unique to South Carolina. And researchers consistently have uncovered the means to solving the teacher turnover problem. As we pointed out in the Kappan a few years ago, states like North Carolina were well on their way to solving teacher shortages in the 2000s, with a comprehensive set of strategies, until those ideas were abandoned. And now, North Carolina is facing equal if not even more dire challenges than its neighbor to the South to recruit and retain teachers.

One effort North Carolina has not discarded is collecting integrated data on the teaching profession, including on teacher education and alternative certification recruits, the extensiveness and usefulness of their training, where they end up teaching (and for how long), and if they leave, where they go and why. The North Carolina system is far from perfect; however, for ten years, the Education Policy Initiative at Carolina (EPIC) has worked with the state education agency and the UNC system to create and carry out an agenda of research designed to better understand teacher and school leader quality in the state. EPIC has conducted dozens of very important and methodologically sound studies related to educator effectiveness. And the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ), a national partner with SC-TEACHER, is now working with EPIC and the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) to better understand the specific role of professional working conditions in retaining teachers. Our efforts are informing the deliberations of North Carolina’s Commission on a Sound Basic Education. (Be on the lookout for more specifics around this work later this spring as publications are released.)

Here is the better news: The University of South Carolina, through its work with districts, other IHEs, CTQ, and EPIC is learning how to build a system to further inform these same issues in our state — to create the data infrastructure, the tools, and analytical capacity to assemble specific evidence on who enters teaching, through what pathway, how effective they become, and what teaching and learning conditions help them improve, stay in the profession, and support long-term school improvement.

This work will be the heart of SC-TEACHER, a new Center of Excellence supported by the SC Commission on Higher Education, in an effort to develop for policymakers and practitioners much better and consistent evidence on teacher education and retention, connecting hard data to good practice and the policies needed for sustainability. It is one thing to develop reliable and valid data on the teaching profession — which has to be Job #1. It is another thing to do Job #2: co-creating with school practitioners the studies that would be most useful to them in recruiting, preparing, and retaining teachers, and how all of them can be more effective in service to our state’s 780,000 public school students. These are the two primary ambitions of SC-TEACHER, which include getting down to the facts and keeping Saani Perry and many others like him in their classrooms.