Blog: The Educated Reporter

New Teachers Keep Teaching, Contrary to Conventional Wisdom

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan meets with teachers in Los Angeles on October 21, 2014. Photo credit: Flickr/U.S. Dept. of Education

Despite previous reports that new teachers are ditching their professions in record numbers, new federal data suggest that a grand majority of novice classroom instructors are showing up for work year after year.

Eighty-three percent of rookie teachers in 2007 continued to educate public school students half a decade later, according to the 2007–08 Beginning Teacher Longitudinal Study. Ten percent of teachers left the field after just one year.

The federal National Center for Education Statistics tracked for five years a nationally representative sample of 1,990 teachers whose first year of teaching was in either 2007 or 2008. The instructors were followed between the 2007-08 and 2011-12 school years. 

While this period coincided with renewed interest in evaluating teachers to reward instructors who improved student achievement and drive those that were considered ineffective out of the profession, the NCES data show that few teachers left the field involuntarily. After four years, just 27 percent of those teachers who were in a profession other than teaching left because they were laid off or fired.  

“Yes, there could be some increases [in attrition] because of the accountability era, the idea being that we’re supposed to be scrutinizing teachers a little bit more, but I don’t think that is going to be a big piece,” said Richard Ingersoll, a leading national scholar on teacher turnover who is also a professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

The data may also be slightly skewed because the years examined in the federal study largely overlap with the economic downturn of 2008.

“In economic downtimes, employee turnover goes down dramatically because there aren’t other options out there. People will hold on to their jobs even if they hate them,” Ingersoll said. “On the other hand, in economic up times employee turnover as a whole goes up, because there are more opportunities out there.”

Also likely helping the attrition levels stay mostly steady during the recession was the huge injection of federal dollars that were part of President Obama’s stimulus package. A 2012 report produced by the Center on Education Policy determined that 70 percent of the $53 billion states received to stabilize their education spending went toward saving or creating teaching and administrative jobs.

The chart below, produced by NCES, shows how many teachers quit the field and how many changed school districts. After one year in teaching, three-quarters of all teachers in this study remained with their original employer. That figure stood stable at 70 percent four years later.

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

The reasons why teachers left their original school employer changed over time. While the trend starts with a majority of those teachers leaving for a new district, by 2011-12, a majority who left their first school employer were no longer teaching (though a small percentage were still involved in education in some other professional role).

The reasons why that may be are difficult to pinpoint, though. The NCES study is a ticker tape of what happened among teachers, but less clear are the reasons behind these shifts in the teacher labor force.

“Lots of people could look at this new finding and incorporate it into their own viewpoint and use it as ammunition, sure,” said Ingersoll.

Previous research by Ingersoll shows that while the teaching profession seems to be stable at the national level, much more churn is evident at the local level. Relying on 2004-2005 data, Ingersoll found that math and science teachers were four times more likely to move from schools with high numbers of low-income students to better-off schools than they were to migrate from wealthier to poorer schools. Likewise, math and science teachers in urban schools were 3.6 times more likely to move to suburban schools than suburban teachers were to move to city schools. 

“People used to not pay attention to the [teachers moving from school to school], their logic being, ‘Well, gee, they are still in the system, there’s no net loss so it’s not a problem,’” said Ingersoll. “From a systems viewpoint there’s no net loss, but to the principal in the school they’re leaving there’s certainly a loss.”

The federal NCES report did shed light on the effect one reform may have on classroom instructors: Teachers who were assigned mentors their first year of teaching were much more likely to remain in the profession. Nearly 86 percent of teachers who were paired with mentors their first year were still teaching four years later, while the same was true for 71 percent of teachers who weren’t assigned a mentor.

Teacher pay also mattered in retaining teachers, the data show: 88 percent of instructors paid more than $40,000 their first year kept teaching fours years later, while the same was true for 80 percent of the time for those earning less than $40,000 their first year.