Imagine working in an environment that, in any given year, lost between 10 and 20 percent of its professional employees. This is often the case in our schools. In the recent study “How Teacher Turnover Harms Student Achievement,” researchers found that teacher retention problems can have a negative effect on student performance. The disruption of teachers leaving a school is linked to student achievement, which means that teacher retention is not only a concern of teachers themselves, but a policy issue as well.
How High is Teacher Attrition?
Statistics speak volumes — and statistics on teacher retention are startling. According to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, the national attrition rate for teachers is between 13 and 16 percent, but climbs to more than 20 percent in high-minority, high-poverty and low-performing school districts. While teacher attrition is high, it should be seen from a big-picture view: Some teachers leave for reasons unrelated to the profession, such as retirement or to take on a caregiver role. These teachers may eventually return to their career or stay in the education field but outside of the classroom.
The National Council On Teacher Quality’s 2004 report on retaining effective teachers notes a nationwide study that showed that one in four teachers who left the profession eventually returned; it also found that high numbers of teachers who left the classroom stayed in the education field. That some teachers return to the career is a positive sign, but keeping early career teachers in the classroom is important and for those who feel driven out of the job, it is essential to examine why they leave.
Why Teachers Leave: Test Score-Based Evaluations, Broken Career Ladders and Empty School Budgets
In her article “Why Do New Teachers Leave? How Could They Stay?” Elaine Simos posits that some teachers leave the profession because they entered it with unrealistic expectations based on heartwarming movies like “Dead Poet’s Society” and that the reality of multiple preps, unpaid district trainings and large student loads, combined with teachers feeling on their own, is too much for new teachers to bear. She also points out that teachers face testing challenges, particularly when student performance has a significant effect on teacher evaluation. With recent changes in educational policy, the increased role of pay for performance could be a concern for those interested in new teacher retention.
Pay-for-Performance Policies and Limitations Teachers Can’t Control
In “Why They Leave,” Cynthia Kopkowski of the National Education Association further identifies the policies of No Child Left Behind, testing and a lack of teacher support as reasons why teachers leave the profession. She points to NCLB’s focus on accountability as a mitigating factor because often standards-based testing can measure things beyond a teacher’s control, such as limitations a student faced long before entering the classroom. Kopowski echoes Simos’ concern regarding teachers feeling on their own, saying that often, “the schools least prepared to support new teachers — that is, low-income, low-performing facilities — are the ones where most new teachers are sent.” She also identifies a growing lack of respect for teachers by students as a cause of teacher attrition, saying that unmanageable students often create a significant drain on a teacher’s energy and compromise their ability to create engaging content.
Lack of Teacher Mentoring and Professional Development
Beyond those reasons, educational policy researcher Robert Reichardt points out that one significant factor in teacher attrition is inherent to the job itself. Many careers have a ladder-climbing structure that starts new professionals with fewer responsibilities and expectations and allows them to work their way up over time to higher expectations and salaries. However, most teachers are expected to exhibit mastery of the teaching role from their first day on the job. Reichardt notes that while some administrators try to lessen the burden on new teachers, in many ways this structure is the reality of the profession itself.
School Supplies Funding Comes out of Teachers’ Pockets
Another reality of the career which can drive teachers to leave is the rate of pay and other financial issues that arise in increasingly cash-strapped districts. Salary aside, teachers tend to dip into their own pockets for school supplies or continuing education and are faced with a plethora of red-tape for things as simple as photocopies. This, too, can lead new teachers to look outside of their current career. Undoubtedly, the issue of teacher retention is something that can and should be addressed in order to retain the highest quality teachers, particularly through their difficult first five years. Districts across the nation are currently implementing a variety of programs meant to address the difficult task of teacher retention.
Read part two: What Keeps High-Quality Teachers in a School?
Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.