“About half of all new teachers leave the profession after just five years on the job.”
-The Plain Dealer, Dec. 3, 2006
It’s a neat and memorable statistic that’s been repeatedly cited by news reporters, advocacy groups, union officials, and state education departments, among others.
Trouble is, it is arguable and often used misleadingly.
Richard M. Ingersoll, the University of Pennsylvania professor whose calculation was first rounded up to the “half” figure in a 2003 report, sticks to upwards of 40 percent. Other scholars, such as Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University, say the most defensible estimate is about a third. Some of the difference between the figures is accounted for by teachers who leave and return to the profession.
New studies of state rather than national retention suggest even a third might be high. Just 22 percent of California teachers left for good in their first four (rather than five) years, and in Illinois the figure was 27 percent in five years.
Second, the figure is rarely presented in context, often because it is being used to incite alarm. Teacher turnover is roughly in line with that in other professions with similar educational requirements for entry, such as nursing and accounting. And that is so even with the pressure on school districts to get rid of teachers in their first two or three years before tenure protections make it more difficult.
Most worrisome about the 50 percent figure, though, may be the way it obscures the damage done to some schools—typically those serving poor and minority children—from teachers’ switching schools. Evidence suggests that teachers are more likely to leave high-poverty, high-minority, and low-performing schools than schools without those characteristics, although working conditions, not the characteristics themselves, may be mostly to blame. (A significant exception found by researcher Eric A. Hanushek and others he worked with is that black and Hispanic teachers are not more likely to leave schools with higher proportions of students in those same groups. Minority teachers, however, are in short supply.) According to Mr. Ingersoll, in the 2000-01 school year, low-poverty schools turned over between 11 percent and 16 percent of their teachers annually, while high-poverty urban schools had to replace between 19 percent and 26 percent.
Vacancies in high-poverty schools tend to be filled by brand-new teachers—who because of their inexperience are less effective than the teachers who left. Plus, the churn disrupts the schools’ chance to build strong teaching teams. For those reasons, teaching in the most challenged schools, where the best educators are most needed, is often weakest.
“Broad-brush, statewide strategies to reduce attrition are not the answer” to raising teacher quality, summed up the authors of the Illinois study, echoing a growing number of experts. “We need targeted, school-by-school approaches that involve teachers, parents, and principals to create more positive school environments that are more conducive to teaching and learning.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2007 edition of Education Week as Oft-Cited Statistic Likely Inaccurate