Professional Learning

What Can We Do About Teacher Turnover?

Roughly 16 percent of teachers in the U.S. change jobs or leave the profession annually. Here are three ideas for reducing that number.

November 2, 2017

“If you were a sixth grader in Petersburg City Schools last year, at no point did you have a licensed math teacher provide instruction. Not a single day.” —Virginia State Superintendent Steven Staples

As students started a new school year this fall, far too many were greeted by substitute teachers and others who were unprepared for their jobs, as teacher shortages continue to hinder the ability of districts to find fully prepared teachers to fill all of their classrooms.

This year, more than 100,000 classrooms in the U.S. are being staffed by instructors who are uncertified for their assignments and lack the content background and training to teach their classes. These classrooms are disproportionately in schools serving mostly students from low-income families and students of color. In some key subjects, like math, science, and special education, districts of every type and in nearly every state have been hit.

These widespread teacher shortages—which have grown acute over the last few years—occur in large part because about 260,000 teachers leave the profession annually, most of them for reasons other than retirement, and there are not enough newly prepared teachers to take their places. An equal number leave their schools and districts each year for schools with better teaching and learning environments, more supportive principals, or more competitive pay, creating even more turnover at the local level. In total, about 16 percent of teachers move jobs or leave teaching annually, and the rates are much higher in communities with the greatest needs.

Of course, some turnover is necessary and even desirable, particularly when it means teachers can find a better fit elsewhere. But U.S. turnover far exceeds a productive rate and is more than double that in high-achieving provinces and countries such as Finland, Singapore, and Ontario, Canada, which experience surpluses rather than shortages of teachers. And the local cost of teacher turnover—which can range from about $9,000 on average in a rural district to $21,000 on average in an urban district—is a significant burden on many communities.

In our recent study, Teacher Turnover: Why It Matters and What We Can Do About It, the Learning Policy Institute used the most recent national data to look at the nature and causes of teacher turnover in order to identify evidence-based policies that can retain teachers and build a strong and stable workforce.

We found that turnover rates are highest in the South and lowest in the Northeast, where states tend to offer higher pay, support smaller class sizes, and make greater investments in education. Turnover is especially high in subjects with persistent shortages: mathematics, science, special education, English language development, and foreign languages. It is also much higher in Title I schools, which serve more students from low-income families, and in schools serving the largest concentrations of students of color.

How to Reduce Teacher Turnover

Controlling for other factors, three major things emerged as predictors of turnover: teacher preparation, school leadership, and compensation.

High-quality, high-retention entry pathways: Teachers who are well-prepared and well-mentored are much more likely to stay in teaching, as well as to be effective. At the district level, that means providing high-quality mentoring for new teachers that helps them succeed in their early years on the job, as well as exploring “grow-your-own” programs that enable young people and paraprofessionals to prepare and teach in the communities where they live.

States can offer service scholarships and forgivable loans that offset the cost of high-quality preparation and fund teacher residencies that provide apprenticeships in high-need districts, under the wing of expert teachers, while residents complete training at partnering universities.

School leadership: Administrative supports have a large effect on teachers’ decisions to stay in a given school and in the profession. Policymakers can support principals’ preparation to create supportive, collegial teaching environments that enable teachers to be effective. Districts can develop leadership pipelines to prepare new school leaders.

Accreditation and licensure standards for principal training programs that emphasize these leadership skills are also key. States can also develop residencies for principal training, along with state leadership academies that provide mentoring and professional development to prepare school leaders for this important and demanding work.
Compensation: Teachers in districts with stronger salary schedules are much less likely to leave their schools or the profession than teachers in districts with poorer pay scales. States and districts should provide teacher compensation packages that are competitive with those of other professions requiring similar levels of education, and that are equitable across districts. Some districts are also offering housing and child care supports that make the job of teaching more affordable.

An Invisible Problem

Often, policymakers respond to teacher shortages by focusing on recruiting warm bodies to classrooms, even though improving retention is more critical to solving shortages in the long run. One reason for this approach is that teacher turnover is often an invisible problem whose real costs are unknown to parents, the public, and the policymakers themselves.

With forward-thinking strategies that prioritize building a stable workforce, districts and schools can ensure every child can learn from an effective and committed teacher.

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