Teacher Attrition Rate Much Lower Than Assumed, New Surveys Find

By Lynn Olson — April 25, 1990 7 min read

Boston--In its first measure of teacher attrition in more than two decades, the National Center for Education Statistics has found that the percentage of teachers leaving the profession each year may be much lower than previously assumed.

Preliminary results from a set of new national surveys released here last week show that approximately 4.1 percent of public-school teachers left the profession in 1987-88, compared with 6.9 percent in 1969, the last year for which the Education Department collected data.

At a time of great concern about teacher shortages, the new estimate is significant, because the number of teachers who leave the profession annually is the most important figure in projecting the demand for new teachers. A 2 percent reduction in the attrition rate means that approximately 50,000 fewer teachers are leaving teaching each year than had previously been determined.

The preliminary findings, released here last week at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, are based on the new Schools and Staffing Survey, an integrated set of surveys that is expected to provide the most detail ever collected on the nation’s teaching force. The massive undertaking is expected to improve estimates of teacher supply and demand, allow analyses of teacher mobility and turnover, and enhance assessments of teacher quality.

In addition, the surveys provide more complete information on private schools, school administrators, and individual states than has previously been available.

The federal government conducted the surveys of public and private schools, school districts, principals, and teachers in 1987-88. A separate, follow-up survey of teachers who left the profession and of a subsample of those who remained was conducted in 1988-89.

Although results from the surveys were expected to be released more than a year ago, this was the first time that the NCES. has presented any data.

Fills ‘Information Vacuum’

According to Richard Murnane, a professor of education at Harvard University, the surveys should help fill an “information vacuum” in education.

The debate about projected teacher shortages has raged in recent years, for example, because there are so few good figures on which to base estimates. (See Education Week, June 24, 1987.)

Researchers here emphasized that the findings are preliminary, and that individual figures may change based on further review. But they said the overall patterns would remain the same.

Emerson Elliott, director of the NCES, said the new data could cause people who develop projections of teacher supply and demand to “go back to the drawing board.”

The attrition rate is not the only figure that determines the need for new teachers. Changes in the student population, adjustments in student-teacher ratios, and state-education reforms--such as increases in high-school graduation requirements--also influence teacher demand.

But according to Mr. Murnane, the attrition figure “dwarfs virtually every other number involved in these projection estimates.”

The new 4.1 percent estimate is based on a survey of public schools. A more accurate estimate, based on a survey of teachers themselves, will be available later this summer.

Linda Darling-Hammond, an expert on teacher supply and demand and a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, cautioned against placing too much emphasis on the new number.

The attrition rate needs to be calculated for teachers in different age groups, she said, to determine whether there will be a bulge in the number of teachers leaving the profession in the coming years. Some analysts have suggested that a rapidly aging teaching force could lead to severe teacher shortages in the years ahead. Experts also cautioned that supply and demand may vary considerably by state and locality.

Mr. Elliott agreed that additional data is needed, but he noted that the new surveys will enable the department to analyze attrition rates based on age, field, and geographic location for the first time. Data will also be collected every two years.

Individual Versus Aggregate

Nationally, attrition at private schools was more than double that at public schools, averaging 8.7 percent, according to Mary Rollefson, a project officer at the NCES.

The survey also found a much higher turnover rate at individual schools. Those rates include both teachers who have left the profession and teachers who have left to teach elsewhere, making it necessary for the school to hire someone new.

In 1987-88, attrition averaged 9 percent from individual public schools and 17.1 percent from individual private schools. The majority of teachers who left teaching positions in one school moved to another school.

But approximately 40 percent of public-school leavers and 43.8 percent of private-school leavers shifted to nonteaching activities.

Among public-school teachers who left teaching, the greatest number--38 percent--retired. About 19 percent entered other occupations, and 13 percent left for childrearing or homemaking.

Among private-school teachers who left teaching, the greatest number shifted to nonteaching jobs.

The survey also found that attrition rates were higher in schools with large minority populations. In schools where more than half the students were members of a minority group, attrition rates soared to approximately 10 percent annually.

“Indeed, high minority schools have a less stable teaching staff in them,” Ms. Rollefson said.

Gauging the ‘Reserve Pool’

The Schools and Staffing Survey also provides new insights into the potential supply of teachers.

The largest source of newly hired teachers at the school level, according to the survey, are teachers who transfer from other schools.

The second-largest source of hires is new teachers who have not taught before. These people accounted for 26.4 percent of new public-school hires and 30.3 percent of new private-school hires in 1987-88. Current analyses do not reveal whether these individuals are fresh out of education training, or received their certificates years before but have never taught.

The third-largest source of new hires is former teachers who are re-entering the profession. They accounted for 15.6 percent of new hires among public schools and 22.9 percent of new hires among private schools.

A major controversy in estimating teacher supply and demand is the size of the “reserve” pool. That term refers to the number of individuals--such as former teachers--who could be drawn into teaching if working conditions, salaries, or other market forces changed.

Much more information is needed about the size and behavior of this reserve pool to determine whether it could help fill future demands for new teachers, experts say. But the sass data could contribute substantially to that effort.

Salaries and Pay Incentives

Preliminary analyses of results from the surveys also revealed some surprising findings about teacher salaries and pay incentives. For example:

Teachers’ base salaries appear to be much lower than those reported by both national teachers’ unions. According to an analysis of sass data, the average base salary for a teacher in 1987-88 was $26,855, compared with an estimate of $28,085 by the American Federation of Teachers, and $28,008 by the National Education Association.

William J. Fowler, Jr., a researcher at the NCES, speculated that the union estimates, which are derived from state departments of education, may unwittingly include other school compensation, such as payment for extracurricular activities, in addition to base pay.

Sass data also reveal that the majority of teachers feel favorably about pay incentives. These include individual merit pay, group merit pay, career ladders, payment for teaching in a shortage field or a high-priority location, and extra pay for added responsibilities.

Although only 53 percent of public-school teachers favored individual merit pay, 78 percent supported group merit pay. In addition, a higher percentage of private-school teachers favored all types of pay incentives.

The analysis by Erling E. Boe, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania who was on sabbatical at the NCES, also found that approximately 16 percent of public-school teachers receive added pay through some type of career ladder. Although pay incentives are “certainly not a massive phenomenon touching most teachers,” Mr. Boe noted, about 400,000 teachers nationwide appear to receive career-ladder pay.

Lynn Cornett of the Southern Regional Education Board said that figure is not surprising. About 200,000 teachers participate in career-ladder programs in Utah, Texas, Tennessee, and North Carolina alone, she noted.

NCES officials released additional data on teacher certification and training; moonlighting by teachers; the demographic characteristics of school administrators; and the characteristics of special teacher populations, such as bilingual, vocational, rural, and private-school teachers.

Panelists noted that one of sass’s greatest values will be the ability to monitor such findings over time. But they also urged for a more timely release of information.

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 1990 edition of Education Week as Teacher Attrition Rate Much Lower Than Assumed, New Surveys Find