Recruitment & Retention

Teachers Without Mentors Leave the Profession Much Faster, Study Finds

By Ross Brenneman — April 30, 2015 3 min read
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A lot of research has examined teacher attrition and retention, but even still, findings can be inconsistent or narrow. A new federal report out today tries to address shortcomings in teacher retention research.

The Institute for Education Sciences, the U.S. Department of Education’s statistical wing, conducted a longitudinal study between 2007 and 2012 to help determine teacher attrition, retention, and mobility.

Studying a cohort of 1,990 first-year public school teachers beginning in the 2007-08 school year, the study found that after five years of teaching, roughly 70 percent of the original cohort remained in their original schools, 10 percent had moved schools, three percent had returned to teaching, and only 17 percent had exited the profession:

What used to be a catch-all statistic based on the work of University of Pennsylvania Professor Richard Ingersoll—that half of all teachers leave within the first five years of entering the profession—has shown to be unreliable, even according to Ingersoll himself.

If the new results sound familiar, it’s because they echo findings from a Center for American Progress report, released in January, which used the same data. But unlike that study, IES is also working on delving into why the retention rate has changed so much in the past decade.

There are some threads throughout the data:

  • Teachers with mentors: Among members of the original cohort, 86 percent with first-year mentors were still teaching, compared with 71 percent without mentors. A survey released in April 2014 by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and the American Institutes for Research found that mentors provided the most value to new teachers of any form of assistance. Some researchers note, however, that not all mentorship is created equal, and schools that create collaborative environments see the most return on investment.
  • Teacher salary: Eighty-nine percent of teachers with a starting salary of $40,000 or more were still teaching through five years, compared to 80 percent of teachers with lesser starting salaries. Teacher salaries across the country, mind you, often start low and stay low throughout their careers and end with weak retirement savings.
  • Teacher education: Retention rates didn’t change much based on whether new teachers came in with a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree, though teachers with the latter held a slight edge after three years.
  • Teacher sex: Men drop out of the profession faster than women: 78 percent vs. 84 percent.
  • Teacher race: This one is just a little weird: Through five years, white teachers have an edge in retention over teachers of other races, but there’s a sharp drop for non-white teachers in the fourth year, followed by a small rebound. The slight edge white teachers have may be a cause for concern, though, because the teaching profession is very white.
  • Teachers who move: Four out of five teachers who changed schools after their first year did so voluntarily; the remainder moved involuntarily or because their contracts were not renewed. Why so many change schools voluntarily is a good question, but they probably can’t all be moving just because they want a change of scenery after one year. From a recruitment aspect, it’s positive that teachers can move but stay teachers. But teacher mobility is still a form of turnover, and turnover may affect achievement.
  • Teachers who leave: Ten percent of teachers left the profession in the first year, and of those, 73 percent did so voluntarily. Another way of framing that: Almost eight percent of new teachers left the profession voluntarily after one year.

These data are descriptive, so although teachers who have mentors are more likely to stay, it’s not certain that the presence of a mentor is the definitive factor compared to some other, unmeasured factor.

There are lots of other interesting nuggets in the survey, including how community size, certification, student household income level, and grade level are linked to teacher retention.

While the study adds to and perhaps clarifies preexisting data about teacher retention, though, the point is generally the same throughout a lot of research: Teacher turnover is real, and there are some clear differences in which teachers are most affected.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.