Teaching Profession

Teachers Are Quitting Because They’re Dissatisfied. That’s a Crisis, Scholars Say

By Madeline Will — September 20, 2017 6 min read
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States and districts must find ways to keep teachers in the profession—or they’re staring down the barrel of a growing teacher shortage, researchers and policymakers said at a panel discussion here on Tuesday.

The panel was hosted by the Learning Policy Institute, a California-based think tank led by Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, which released a new analysis, Teacher Turnover: Why It Matters and What We Can Do About It. About 8 percent of teachers leave the teaching profession each year, and another 8 percent move to a different school, making the overall turnover rate about 16 percent. (LPI was using nationally representative survey data from the 2012 Schools and Staffing Survey and the 2013 Teacher Follow-up Survey.)

Teacher turnover hurts student achievement, is expensive for schools and districts, and leads to teacher shortages, Darling-Hammond said.

And both teachers who leave the profession and teachers who change schools are most commonly leaving because they are dissatisfied, according to the analysis. See the below graph breaking down why teachers left the profession in 2012-13. (Percentages do not add up to 100 since teachers were allowed to select more than one reason.)

Teacher Turnover

Among those who cited dissatisfaction, 25 percent were referring to testing and accountability measures, 21 percent were unhappy with the school administration, and 21 percent were generally dissatisfied with their teaching careers.

It’s also worth noting that 29 percent of those leaving teaching are taking non-teaching jobs in schools and districts. And nearly a third of teachers who leave eventually return to the profession, estimates suggest.

Here are some other findings:

    • In Title I schools, the turnover rate for mathematics and science teachers is 70 percent greater than it is in non-Title I schools.
    • Teachers who lack “comprehensive preparation” (and have entered the profession through alternative pathways) are two to three times more likely to leave teaching in their early years.
    • Teacher turnover is greater when schools serve primarily students of color—regardless of teachers’ years of experience, certification pathway, or subjects taught.
    • Non-elementary teachers are more likely to move schools or leave teaching entirely. See the graphic below (which has a 95 percent confidence interval for each estimate):

Subject Area

And this churn is expensive: Desiree Carver-Thomas, a researcher at LPI, said it can cost up to $21,000 to replace a new teacher in an urban school district, due to the additional costs associated with recruitment, hiring, and training. She modeled a new interactive tool by LPI that shows the estimated cost of turnover for districts, based on estimated data. For many districts, Carver-Thomas said, the cost reaches upwards of $1 million annually.

In addition to dollar costs, Carver-Thomas said that student achievement suffers in schools with high turnover as well. Studies show that teachers improve as they gain experience. And in some states, districts have had to turn to teachers with emergency certifications to fill the gaps.

See also: Districts Turn to Emergency Measures for Hard-to-Staff Teaching Posts

The teacher turnover analysis follows LPI’s work last year that predicted a severe, national shortage of as many as 112,000 teachers by 2018. That figure was criticized at the time by some education experts, including Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.

In an interview, Walsh said that new data from the Department of Education disproves that assertion, showing that the number of U.S. teachers has grown by 13 percent in four years, far outpacing the rise in student enrollment. LPI, however, had recently found that 110,000 individuals are teaching without having met certification standards, which Darling-Hammond said reflects the reality of her original estimate.

“If you perpetuate a crisis ... it’s not surprising that you see states all over the country backpedaling on their certification requirements,” Walsh responded. “You get what you ask for. You have states hiring all these uncertified teachers, they’re convinced the sky is falling.”

The real problem, Walsh said, is more nuanced. Some states, like Oklahoma, have legitimate shortages. Many districts struggle with finding qualified special education teachers or high school science teachers. But there isn’t a national teacher shortage, she said, because there isn’t a national labor market.

Instead, she said, the question should be: “What can we do to address those shortages and those high rates of turnover in the districts and schools that are persistently challenged by these problems?”

Walsh’s policy recommendations are to create differentiated pay packages to be responsive to districts’ needs—i.e. teachers in hard-to-staff positions, like science and math, should be paid more—and for teacher-preparation programs to better align the type of teachers they produce to shortage areas. For example, she said, colleges overproduce elementary teachers, and should encourage some of those students to go into teaching special education or high school math.

“They have an ethical responsibility to align supply and demand,” she said.

See also: If We Fix Student Teaching, Will We Fix Teacher Shortages?

Meanwhile, LPI researchers advocated for three main policy fixes: better compensation, including service scholarships and loan forgiveness programs; high-quality teacher preparation and support, including teacher residency programs, grow-your-own models, and induction programs for novice teachers; and training school leadership. When principals are better trained, researchers said, they can provide better support for new teachers and improve working conditions for educators in the building.

When there are so many new teachers, administrators have to cater to them, and that can be frustrating for other educators in the building, said Antonio Iglesias, a science teacher in Newark, N.J., and a panelist.

“It just becomes this feedback loop, to the point where it’s like Defense Against the Dark Arts in ‘Harry Potter,’” he said, referring to Hogwarts’ struggle (or curse) to keep a professor for that subject for more than one year.

Steven Staples, the superintendent of public instruction in Virginia and one of the panelists, said this year, there are gaps and shortages everywhere in the state—even affluent suburban districts. He shared anecdotes from his visits to different districts, including this one: At no point during the last school year did 6th graders in Petersburg, Va., have a licensed math teacher. The Virginia governor has asked retired teachers to go back to work in the high-poverty district, which is about 30 minutes outside of Richmond.

States have to look beyond the constant cycle of filling the gaps for one year, and instead create lasting change, said panelist Sharon Tomiko Santos, a Democratic state representative from Washington state.

“For too long, we have been too focused on the immediate crisis at hand,” she said, referring to it as “putting a Band-Aid over a gushing wound.”

Policymakers in Washington are trying to brainstorm long-term, systemic solutions. Teachers have been tapped for their insights as well, Santos said. Their advice? “Stop sucking the joy out of education.”

Graphic data by the Learning Policy Institute

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