Teaching Profession

The Idea That Half of New Teachers Leave Within Five Years Is Likely a Myth

By Ross Brenneman — January 09, 2015 2 min read
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Guest post by Stephen Sawchuk. This post originally appeared on Teacher Beat.

Here’s a retention riddle: True or false, half of all new teachers leave the classroom in five years.

According to a new analysis of federal data, the answer—at least for today’s teachers—is false, with closer to 30 percent of new teachers leaving within five years.

Moreover, the rate of retention is similar for teachers in low- and high-poverty schools, Robert Hanna and Kaitlin Pennington of the Center for American Progress write in the analysis released today.

The widely cited “50 percent in five” statistic dates from 2003, and even its originator, University of Pennsylvania’s Richard Ingersoll, has noted that it was always a bit of a rough estimate. Further studies actually put the figure closer to 40 percent. The problem was that many advocates and journalists haven’t been careful in how they’ve discussed the figure. (Of course, I exempt Education Week from culpability, as a predecessor of mine here wrote a good story in 2007 on the dubiousness of the 50 percent figure.)

The CAP analysis is based on an examination of the federal Schools and Staffing Survey from 2007-08 and its follow-up study, the Beginning Teacher Longitudinal Study. Then the authors looked at results from the SASS from 2011-12 and its follow-up.

These cross-sectional studies contain data on representative samples of teachers, so the researchers were able to estimate the percentage of first-year teachers who remained in the profession, the percentage of second year teachers who remained, and so on.

Using those data, they estimated that, with both the 2007-08 and 2011-12 sets, about 70 percent of new teachers were still teaching after five years, including those at schools where 80 percent or more of the student body was eligible for free and reduced-price meals, a common proxy for poverty.

What does seem to be unclear is why, between 2003 and today, the retention rate seems to have improved by so much—approximately 10 percentage points. The authors are pretty flummoxed on this point, too, saying it begs for further research.

One caveat: Overall, teachers in high-poverty schools stayed in the profession at similar rates—but turnover in individual schools may still have been high relative to others. The study doesn’t probe this question. (Many other studies have documented that high-poverty schools tend to have higher overall turnover rates, with teachers seeking jobs in schools with more stability or better working conditions.)

Also, consider that Ingersoll found in 2014 that teachers hired after 2008 seem to be staying longer, adding yet more interest to the mystery.

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