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Schools Have No Handle on $7 Billion Cost of Teacher Turnover, Study Finds

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Teacher turnover is “spiraling out of control” and is estimated to have cost the nation more than $7 billion in the 2003-04 school year alone, asserts a report released today.

The study from the Washington-based National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future says that despite the staggering expense, virtually no school district now has systems in place to track or control such turnover.

The last attempt to put a price tag on teacher attrition, long acknowledged as a resource drain, was a 2005 report from the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education, which came up with the more modest but still hefty estimate of $4.9 billion.

NCTAF officials say their figure of $7.3 billion is higher because it is based on an increased teacher workforce and a slightly higher attrition rate.

Tom Carroll, the president of NCTAF, said that since the time period covered in the alliance’s survey, the teacher-turnover rate has grown from 16 percent to 17 percent—an increase that is significant given the size of the 3.4 million teacher workforce. For this report, NCTAF defined turnover as teachers who leave a district.

Also, he said, earlier studies have not been based on detailed analyses of actual cost data from districts. Researchers for this report closely examined data for five school districts to come up with the extrapolated national figure of $7.3 billion.

Turnover costs for the five districts studied ranged from $4,366 per teacher who left the rural district of Jemez Valley, N.M., to $17,872 per teacher in Chicago. Chicago spends $86 million on turnover each year. Other districts studied include Granville County, N.C., which spent $9,875, and Milwaukee, which spent $15,325. The cost for Santa Rosa, N.M., was unavailable.Turnover costs were typically based on expenses incurred to recruit, hire, and train teachers.

“Often, it is the high-risk schools that are recruiting and replacing teachers all the time,” Mr. Carroll said. While the dollar cost is significant, he added, what is even worse is that students at such schools do not get the benefit of a stable, experienced teacher workforce.

Solutions Offered

The report makes several recommendations, including a call for the federal government to make the retention of highly effective teachers a focus of the No Child Left Behind Act, which is up for reauthorization this year, and amending the law to hold school leaders accountable for teacher turnover and its costs. Each state and local education agency should be required to report publicly the distribution of qualified teachers, average years of teaching experience in each school, the annual rate of principal and teacher attrition, and the cost of that attrition for each school that it serves, it adds.

It also lays out a series of steps that districts can take to combat attrition: Measure turnover and its costs and then devise a comprehensive human-resource strategy to combat it; invest in comprehensive induction programs; and foster a school culture in which new and experienced teachers work together to improve student achievement.

The report provides an online calculator for districts and schools to estimate their own teacher-turnover costs.

The study includes a handful of examples of districts that have used some or all those steps, with notable success.

For instance, in Clark County, Nev., the fastest-growing district in the country, school officials in the 2002-03 school year used a federal grant to implement a pilot project at 12 schools that had especially high turnover rates—the average teacher tenure at these schools was just 1.9 years. Principals were given a head start in the hiring process and could choose teachers who fit their school improvement plans. The pilot also offered full-time mentoring and slightly higher pay to new teachers.

Three years on, the schools have a teacher-retention rate of between 85 percent and 95 percent, and the program is now being expanded to 27 schools.

Mr. Carroll said that the example of the Clark County district, which includes Las Vegas, offers hope to other districts weighed down by the cost of teacher turnover.

“The good news is that when districts address this problem and take it on directly, when they start to invest in better-prepared teachers and offer them strong support, they can see progress,” he said. “It’s a solvable problem.”

Vol. 26

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