Why Teacher Turn-Over is So High and Why it Matters

One of the most intractable problems in K-12 education today is the dramatic rates of turnover, particularly in urban school districts. Although the trend has actually stabilized, and varies by school district and state, for every 100 new teachers entering the profession, barely 50 are still in their original school or teaching at all after five years.

The teacher “drop-out” crisis creates three really, really big problems. One is cost.

Research on this issue conducted at the University of Pennsylvania estimates that replacing teachers costs U.S. school districts north of two billion dollars per year! Imagine, over a decade, schools must divert roughly eleven billion dollars in funding away from direct delivery of education and services to the problem of staffing classrooms. Some turnover is necessary, and with greater retention, schools would pay higher salaries as teachers achieve more seniority, but the benefits would be significant, and the overall cost certainly lower.

The second big problem is the brain drain in the profession. Currently, about 25% of teachers have less than five years of experience and less than half of all teachers have ten years of experience. No organization or industry can maintain high performance outcomes when large numbers of their professional staff are, in effect, relative novices. And, even for those new teachers who leave their school or the profession altogether, on average, they walk out the door with at least a few years of experience—and investment on the part of their school districts.

The third is a growing nationwide shortage of teachers–now the worst in decades. A summary of a recent report from Stanford University, noted that “At a time when public school enrollment is on the upswing, large numbers of teachers are headed for retirement or leaving the profession … Meanwhile, enrollment in teacher preparation programs is dropping dramatically, falling 35 percent nationwide in the last five years.” While turnover is only one component of the shortage, it exacerbates the losses from retirement and the declines in teacher education enrollments.

Why do teachers leave? Ironically, it’s not about money.

Teachers know about the modest compensation before they enter a classroom. Turnover tends to be based on the conditions in a given school. Some of the reasons teachers report include: a sense of powerlessness, lack of autonomy, massive dysfunction on the part of students and lack of engagement on the part of parents, and lack of support to handle all the overwhelming challenges. New teachers report being physically and emotionally exhausted, with little sense of accomplishment or professional discretion.

Historically, teachers had a great deal of discretion in their own classrooms—they were “professionals.” In many cases today, due to legislated and/or regulatory requirements, teachers are often mandated to spend pre-determined amounts of time on predetermined content, regardless of student needs. In some cases, someone “downtown” or at the state literally determines what page in a given text teachers must be on, on a given day. Moreover, they are often evaluated, not on their creativity or commitment or ability to meet the needs of individual students. They are often judged on their ability to methodically drive their young charges to achieve certain scores on standardized tests. Research suggests that in some districts (mostly urban and poor), teachers are required to spend between a third and a half of their entire teaching time in some form of test preparation. 

So, what can we do to keep more teachers on the job?

Just a couple generations ago, teachers fresh out of teacher education programs, went into schools with mostly homogenous student populations, few or no “special needs” students, limited or no testing requirements, limited or non-existing “social curricula,” and parents that were engaged and generally in support of teachers.

Today, the fact is that, even in well-funded, well-run districts with fewer at-risk students, very few new teachers are truly prepared to navigate the myriad, overwhelming challenges inherent in walking into a classroom full of large numbers of very diverse students, district and state mandates, myriad “social curriculum” requirements, coordination with ancillary student services, meetings, planning, parent complaints, etc., etc. In poorly funded districts, with multitudes of high-risk students, the challenges are even greater and the resources fewer.

In the absence of changing the schools themselves, the answer may be a system that eases new teachers into the profession over a two or three year period. Harvard and NYU are both experimenting with what some call fellowship or induction programs that induct new teachers with limited responsibilities in their first year, maybe teaching two or three classes per day, while working with mentors, attending special education “IEP” or curriculum planning meetings, but without personal accountability for meeting outcomes. In subsequent years, these new teachers incur greater teaching and administrative responsibilities until they are “turned loose” in year two, three or four depending on the program.

Although expensive, it is likely that such programs, implemented at scale, would not cost nearly as much as turnover currently does. Moreover, teachers in such induction programs are likely to be much more effective in years three through six, for example, than the current sink or swim model that flushes large numbers of new teachers out of the system—and they are more likely to stay in the profession.

What is clear is that the current system is not working and is not sustainable. One of the ancillary benefits of fellowship or induction programs is that the teacher training programs themselves tend to be much shorter than traditional programs, making teacher training less expensive for students and colleges of education, while increasing the capacity of those programs. Could be a win-win!


Artwork credited to NPR.org

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