Attrition Rate for Teachers Hits 25-Year Low, Study Finds

By Blake Rodman — October 14, 1987 4 min read

The rate at which working teachers are leaving their jobs is currently at the lowest level in 25 years, a new study has found.

But a number of factors will begin pushing the “attrition” rate up--gradually at first and then more rapidly--over the course of the next decade, according to the study by the rand Corporation.

That conclusion is significant because attrition is the largest single determinant of the demand for teachers, and as such is a critical factor in gauging whether the nation is on the verge of a severe teacher shortage.

“By itself, the finding does not tell us specifically about shortages,” said Arthur E. Wise, director of rand’s center for the study of the teaching profession. But, he noted, “the results of this analysis are not cause for comfort.”

Attrition To Rise

The current attrition rate is running between 6 percent and 9 percent, according to the report, down from 10 percent to 15 percent during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

“Although attrition rates may not return to those levels,” Mr. Wise said, “they are expected to rise for the next 10 years.”

The study does not offer a percentage estimate of the expected rise in the attrition rate. Mr. Wise said that the researchers’ “minimum prediction” was that it would rise by 2 percentage points over the next 10 years, but that he personally believed the increase would be much higher.

Why People Leave

The 83-page report, “Teacher Attrition: The Uphill Climb to Staff the Nation’s Schools,” was prepared by David W. Grissmer and Sheila Nataraj Kirby, two rand researchers.

The authors’ conclusions are based on an analysis of attrition data from two unnamed “jurisdicel10ltions” and four states--Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Utah--that have kept consistent data on teacher attrition over time. In addition, the researchers reviewed existing literature on the subject.

The study, Mr. Wise said, “is a look at selected data points that lead to the inference that teacher demand will rise as a function of increased teacher attrition.”

Attrition, however, is only one component of demand, he noted, pointing also to student enrollments, pupil-teacher ratios, and new educational programs as relevant factors.

The study found that roughly two-thirds to three-fourths of attrition within school districts is the result of interdistrict transfers, temporary withdrawal from teaching, retirement, illness and death, as well as promotions or transfers to other education jobs.

The remaining one-third to one- fourth of district attrition results primarily from teachers leaving the profession permanently to seek employment outside of education. Some evidence suggests, the researchers state, that teachers in this group-- who leave their jobs voluntarily--are those with the strongest credentials and test scores.

From their analysis, the authors conclude that roughly 40 percent to 60 percent of teachers who leave their jobs later return to teaching.

Changes With Age

The report’s prediction that teacher attrition rates will rise over the coming decade is based principally on an analysis of the composition of the current teaching force and past and present attrition patterns.

The data show that annual attrition rates for beginning teachers are roughly 20 percent to 25 percent. That high level, however, declines sharply to only 1 percent to 5 percent for mid-career teachers. The rate then rises again to 20 percent to 25 percent for teachers approaching retirement eligibility.

The current low attrition rate can be attributed in part to a teaching force that has an unusually high percentage of teachers in the mid-career range, according to the study. But as those teachers age, more will become eligible for retirement and attrition will begin to rise.

Moreover, it states, as more young teachers are hired to replace those retiring and to meet the rising enrollments of the “baby boomlet,” the attrition rate “will be further boosted,” since beginning teachers leave teaching jobs at a high rate.

More Data Needed

Although these and several other factors will tend to push attrition higher, real improvements in teacher pay, benefits, and working conditions--such as reductions in class size--could result in improved teacher retention, the report states.

“The number of young teachers will be increasing, and they usually make their career decisions during the first five years of teaching,” the report states. “Policies that carry more of these teachers into mid-career could have a high payoff.”

The report notes, however, that policymakers are working with a “critical lack of data on teacher attrition.”

To remedy this situation, the report calls for more comprehensive analysis of existing state data on teachers and improved data collection on the subject at the national level.

The latter concern is currently being addressed by the federal Center for Education Statistics, which is working on a new national survey of teachers, with assistance from rand.

The study was sponsored by rand’s center for the study of the teaching profession and the U.S. Education Department.

Copies of the report are available for $7.50 each from rand’s publications department, 1700 Main Street, P.O. Box 2138, Santa Monica, Calif. 90406-2138.

A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 1987 edition of Education Week as Attrition Rate for Teachers Hits 25-Year Low, Study Finds