School & District Management

Question of Teacher Turnover Sparks Research Interest

By Bess Keller — April 30, 2003 7 min read
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North Carolina officials took the extraordinary step last year of sending out a survey to every single public school teacher in the state—more than 75,000 educators. The subject was working conditions, and the aim was to find out why teachers were leaving the classroom.

“Teacher Turnover, Teacher Shortages, and the Organization of Schools,” by Richard M. Ingersoll, is available from the Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.); “Putting Teacher Labor Markets in Context: A Comparison of Turnover Across Professions and Industries,” is forthcoming from the Economic Policy Institute in Washington; “Attrition of New Teachers Among Recent College Graduates,” by Robin R. Henke and Lisa Zahn, is available from the National Center for Education Statistics; “Teacher Supply and Demand: Surprises from Primary Research,” by Andrew J. Wayne, is posted by the Education Policy Analysis Archives.

“The biggest problem is we’re losing teachers each year,” Gov. Mike Easley said at a news conference last month. “We have to do more than recruit new teachers.”

A phenomenon once hidden behind the phrase “teacher shortage,” teacher turnover has moved into the spotlight of public-policy discussions with the help of new research.

Scholars also have been exploring turnover in more detail, seeking to discover whether teachers leave more often than similarly educated workers—which bears on the question of how much and what kind of turnover is unhealthy for education. And they have asked whether the attrition is really as big a problem as policymakers have recently been led to believe.

If it is, goes the advice, better to invest heavily in retaining teachers than see the teacher supply continually sapped and students paying the price.

That argument was at the heart of a January report by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, which declared a “crisis” of teacher retention.

Leaking Bucket

The commission’s report draws heavily on the research of Richard M. Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education. Mr. Ingersoll has compared the problem of hiring enough teachers for the nation’s classrooms to pouring water into a bucket with a hole, a metaphor that has helped reframe the issue for many a policymaker and journalist.

In a 2001 paper, he draws on the federal government’s large Schools and Staffing surveys and their follow-ups to conclude that certain school characteristics—such as the number of students living in poverty and other factors that vary by school and district, including salary and student discipline—are linked to higher teacher turnover.

Along the way, he mentions “large numbers” of teachers departing their jobs for reasons other than retirement, suggesting that teaching has a “relatively high turnover rate.”

Other researchers in recent years have looked at teacher turnover, using different data than Mr. Ingersoll’s, to examine teachers’ departure from the profession, which is one part of turnover.

Their work has tended to draw attention to both “good” attrition— when bad teachers leave—and attrition that would be hard to remedy by improving school working conditions.

In general, their conclusions paint a picture rather at odds with the commission report, but in sync with Mr. Ingersoll’s concern that certain schools are hit much harder than others by turnover.

A forthcoming paper by Doug Harris of Florida State University and Scott J. Adams of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee compared annual attrition among job-holders in four occupations that have similar educational requirements: teaching, nursing, social work, and accounting.

Using monthly surveys conducted by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics and taking into account the differences related to factors such as having a child, the economists found that teachers are more likely to leave their profession in any given year than are nurses, a finding that matches Mr. Ingersoll’s.

But the researchers also found that accountants are as likely to leave as teachers, and that social workers are more likely to leave. In fact, a social worker has about a 6 percent greater chance than a teacher of leaving his or her profession in any given year.

The researchers ultimately suggest that a better goal than trying at any cost to reduce teaching’s less-than-alarming attrition is to put into place policies that will keep more of the best teachers.

In their paper, Mr. Harris and Mr. Scott also compare the age distribution of teachers with professionals in the other three fields. They conclude that annual attrition for teachers is much more likely for the youngest and the oldest compared with their age-mates in the other occupational groups.

Other researchers have echoed their finding that new teachers leave the profession at significantly higher rates than experienced teachers.

Mr. Ingersoll says that four Schools and Staffing surveys and their follow-ups show that between 40 percent and 50 percent of new teachers have left at the end of five years.

However reliable that figure, a 2001 study by Robin R. Henke and Lisa Zahn of the education consulting firm MPR Associates Inc., which has offices in Berkeley, Calif., and Washington, found that new college graduates who took full-time jobs as teachers were no more likely to change occupations rapidly than many other new college graduates in white- and pink-collar fields.

Using the massive federal Baccalaureate and Beyond survey, Ms. Henke and Ms. Zahn compared teachers with graduates who were hired for jobs in a host of other fields. About four-fifths of the teachers were still in the classroom in the spring of 1997, three years after beginning work, they reported. That was about the same proportion of new graduates who kept jobs in engineering, legal and financial services, law enforcement, and health-related work.

“High attrition from initial occupations may be endemic to new college graduates’ entry into the job market, regardless of occupation,” they wrote.

Mr. Ingersoll believes that the figure provided by Ms. Henke and Ms. Zahn of 20 percent gone in three years is not a good representation of new-teacher attrition, in part because it does not count teachers who enter the profession after working at something else or getting a graduate degree.

But even more, he wonders about comparisons that pair teaching with nursing, bookkeeping, and paralegal work, but not with university teaching, law, or architecture.

There is widespread agreement on this point, though: Once through the first years on the job, teachers mostly stay until they near retirement age.

Long Room

Andrew J. Wayne, a researcher with SRI International.

Andrew J. Wayne, a researcher with SRI International, questions whether overall teacher turnover is really as high as many policymakers have been led to believe.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley/Education Week

Researcher Andrew J. Wayne says that’s why he likes a metaphorical alternative to the leaky bucket. He pictures the teacher workforce over time as a long room with a revolving-door entrance at one end and a standard exit at the other. The revolving door whisks away many teachers nearest the door and puts them outside, while whisking outside people in. But once past the “churning” near the entrance, the overwhelming majority of teachers stay to travel the entire length of the room before leaving through the retirement exit at the other end.

“With all the hyperbole, a reasonable legislator might guess that one in four teachers drops out of the profession every year,” Mr. Wayne, who is now with the research firm SRI International, based in Menlo Park, Calif., and Arlington, Va., wrote in a 2000 paper. Excluding retirements, he continued, the number actually is closer to one in 20 teachers a year.

That means a lot of stability for most schools, he points out.

At the same time, some schools are different. Low-poverty schools turned over about 13 percent of their teaching staffs on average, while high-poverty schools turned over 20 percent on average, according to the latest Schools and Staffing survey and follow-up reports that Mr. Ingersoll analyzed. And the differences between individual schools can be even more stark—and telling.

“Some lose 40 percent and some 5 percent,” Mr. Ingersoll said. “The real important question is ... how much turnover is there in particular schools, and how much of a role does that play in staffing problems?”

With that, Mr. Wayne agrees.

Coverage of research is underwritten in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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