Do Half Of New Teachers Leave The Profession Within Five Years?

Posted by on December 15, 2011

You’ll often hear the argument that half or almost half of all beginning U.S. public school teachers leave the profession within five years.

The implications of this statistic are, of course, that we are losing a huge proportion of our new teachers, creating a “revolving door” of sorts, with teachers constantly leaving the profession and having to be replaced. This is costly, both financially (it is expensive to recruit and train new teachers) and in terms of productivity (we are losing teachers before they reach their peak effectiveness). And this doesn’t even include teachers who stay in the profession but switch schools and/or districts (i.e., teacher mobility).*

Needless to say, some attrition is inevitable, and not all of it is necessarily harmful, Many new teachers, like all workers, leave (or are dismissed) because they are just aren’t good at it – and, indeed, there is test-based evidence that novice leavers are, on average, less effective. But there are many other excellent teachers who exit due to working conditions or other negative factors that might be improved (for reviews of the literature on attrition/retention, see here and here).

So, the “almost half of new teachers leave within five years” statistic might serve as a useful diagnosis of the extent of the problem. As is so often the case, however, it’s rarely accompanied by a citation. Let’s quickly see where it comes from, how it might be interpreted, and, finally, take a look at some other relevant evidence.

The primary source for the claim seems to be analyses by respected University of Pennsylvania professor Richard Ingersoll (presented, among other places, in this 2003 report). Ingersoll uses data from the 2001-02 Teacher Follow-Up Survey (TFS). The TFS is a supplement to the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), a highly regarded national survey of teachers conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

And, indeed, he estimates cumulative five-year attrition at 46 percent, and also reports finding similar results using SASS/TFS data from previous years.

So, there is an empirical foundation for this claim, but there are also a few very important caveats and limitations (all of which Ingersoll dutifully acknowledges and/or addresses directly with additional analyses). First, this figure is only an approximation. Few surveys follow respondents for five years, and even fewer contain a sufficient number of new teachers to get precise estimates. As a result, “true” estimates of new teacher attrition are very hard to come by.

The SASS samples a large group of teachers, but contacts a sub-sample of them only one year later (that’s the TFS). This means Ingersoll must derive his five-year attrition figure from estimates of the probability of teachers leaving in their first, second, third, fourth and fifth years.

So, given that the 46 percent is only an approximation, it’s best to give it a little bit of an error margin, and say that, according to this analysis, between 40-50 percent of new teachers left within five years.

Second, due to data limitations, these estimates cannot account for teachers who leave teaching and then return at a later point. This phenomenon is quite common – in fact, some studies estimate that as much as 20-25 percent of leavers return to the profession at some later point (also see here). Some also take non-teaching jobs within the education field.

The fact that many leavers come back does not necessarily detract much from the policy importance of the 40-50 percent figure – schools that lose a teacher must still incur the multi-dimensional costs of hiring a new one, regardless of whether the first teacher eventually returns. (The same basic point of course applies to teacher mobility – e.g., teachers who switch schools/districts.)

On the other hand, a large proportion of returners may mitigate the harmful aggregate effects of new teacher attrition, since many “new” hires will have some experience under their belt, and fewer brand new teachers would be needed.

The third issue is very important, and it usually applies to estimates for a large group (in this case, for a whole nation): There is a tremendous amount of underlying variation. New teacher attrition varies within and between states. In some districts, the rate of leaving (and mobility) is much lower than the national figures suggest, whereas in others, particularly in lower-income areas, it is higher.

For example, one study using Philadelphia data found that, among the teachers hired for the 1999-2000 school year, a full 70 percent had left the district within six years (though it’s very important to note that this analysis, like most single-district estimates of new teacher attrition using administrative [usually payroll] data, significantly inflates the amount of leaving per se, since it doesn’t differentiate between teachers who actually exited the profession entirely versus those who simply got a job in another district). High rates (with the same caveat about inter-district mobility) can also been found in other urban districts, such as New York City and Chicago (also see Ingersoll’s work in this area).

In other words, any national estimate of new teacher attrition (and mobility) might over- or understate the prevalence, depending on the context. Attrition rates are also higher among teachers entering the field with less preparation and mentoring (but there’s some evidence that the former may be more likely to change schools)

The fourth issue to keep in mind about this particular finding is that, by itself, it lacks a frame of reference. In other words, one might point out that the fact that a given proportion of new teachers leave within five years doesn’t by itself tell us whether it’s “high” or “low.” It might be compared with something, such as the rates in other professions.

Certainly, new teacher leaving is higher than that among entrants into other professions, such as law and medicine, that require extensive investment in occupation-specific human capital. But research comparing teachers with a wide range of other jobs is somewhat limited. This 2001 paper looks at 1992-93 college graduates who were teaching in 1994. The analysis indicates that the proportion who had left teaching by 1997 was similar to or lower than those of other graduates’ occupations.**

Ingersoll compared total turnover (attrition plus mobility) with data from other sources, and found that it was higher than that in other occupations by small margins (also see here for a comparison of total teacher turnover [attrition plus mobility] with that of nurses, social workers and accountants). Other studies find an important role of childbearing in contributing to young teachers’ leaving the workforce.

Fifth and finally, these are older data, and even though Ingersoll has stated that the results using the 2004-05 TFS were roughly the same, there is some even newer evidence on beginning teacher attrition that bears on this discussion. NCES, which conducts the SASS/TFS, has begun a supplemental survey survey that follows a cohort of new teachers over time. The first round of results, though preliminary, indicates that, among beginning teachers hired in 2007-08, about 10 percent had left teaching by 2008-09, and only 12.5 percent had left by 2009-10. These are considerably lower than all previous figures, especially the second-year rate.**

On the other hand, the most recent estimates from the TFS (2008-09) find that the raw leaving rate among teachers with 1-3 years of experience is about nine percent, while the rate for teachers with 4-9 years is around eight percent. These figures, very roughly ballparked, are more in line with previous work (though, again, many leavers do return, and it’s the 2009-10 estimate that really diverges).

In any case, it’s obviously true that that job attrition rates can change over time, and it’s quite possible that new teacher attrition may not be as high as it used to be. For instance, comparing the rates from the 2008-09 TFS with those from the previous administration (2004-05), there seems to have been a decrease in leaving among teachers with no prior experience. The recession might have played a role here, as fewer teachers are being hired, and those that do enter may be less likely to incur the risk of changing jobs when so few are available. Shifts in new teachers’ demographics or qualifications could also affect leaving rates.

So, overall, it’s fair to say that the “almost half of new teachers leave within five years” statistic has some backing, but, like almost any standalone statistic, it’s an incomplete assessment of the current situation. To the degree that the approximations from the 1990s and early 2000s are on target, about 40-50 percent of new teachers left the profession within five years, but many did return, and, perhaps most importantly, attrition was higher in some places and lower than others. In addition, there is very tentative recent evidence that the five-year cumulative rate may be somewhat lower going forward.

Regardless, none of this should distract from the larger, important point: New teacher attrition (and total turnover) are serious problems that might be productively addressed. The entire nation may not lose quite as many as half its new teachers, but many districts, especially the poorer, lower-performing ones, do lose half or more, sometimes more quickly than five years. Moreover, if you include mobility (which, from a district’s perspective, has the same basic effect), these rates get much worse.

High turnover among new teachers can create a self-reinforcing cycle that threatens the stability and efficacy of schools, especially those serving the most disadvantaged children. And that’s much more important than quibbling over the precise national rate and how it was calculated.

- Matt Di Carlo

*****

* For the purposes of this post, I will use the term “attrition” to refer to teachers who leave the profession entirely. It is often conflated with mobility and/or total turnover.

** This analysis is among the only ones I could find that used relatively recent data to compare teacher leaving rates (rather than turnover) with those in other professions. But there may be a couple of issues worth noting about these comparisons. First, the estimates for 1992-93 graduates (i.e., whether they were in the same occupation in 1997 as in 1994) only pertain to the people who were actually employed in 1994 and 1997. This excludes not only those who entered into postgraduate training, but also graduates who were in the labor force in 1994 but dropped out by 1997 (teachers may have been more likely to do so). Moreover, in this report, some of the comparisons of K-12 teachers are with highly aggregate groupings, such as “sales and service” and “legal professionals and legal support.” Even though the analysis is limited to college graduates, these categories are rather diverse in terms of the specific occupations that comprise them. Either of these issues might skew the comparisons a bit.

*** This new survey will be following these teachers for a total of five years (up to 2012-13), and it will be interesting to see how the results turn out.


6 Comments posted so far

  • I’d like to see a figure that convincingly took into account:

    1) teachers who take time off (to have kids or to do whatever) and then return later;
    2) teachers who transfer to another school, including in other districts or states; and
    3) teachers who move into administrative jobs or some job that isn’t technically a classroom teacher (literacy coach, etc.).

    All of those are things that we want teachers to be able to do, if they like.

    Comment by Stuart Buck
    December 15, 2011 at 1:20 PM
  • [...] Tracing the “half of all teachers leave in five years” claim back through its many versions. (Shanker Blog) [...]

    December 15, 2011 at 7:43 PM
  • Stuart,

    All three of those issues are addressed in the post, and they all require longitudinal survey data (not administrative data, such as payrolls). The analyses of SASS/TFS data discussed in this post can account for #2 and #3. The first one, on the other hand, is theoretically impossible to rule out unless you have data that follow respondents over the course of their entire working life. The best one can do is assume that most returners do so within a certain time period after leaving. One year (e.g., SASS/TFS) is too short, but I think five years is a decent interval, and so the new NCES beginning teacher survey should largely do the trick on all three fronts. Unfortunately, we’ll all have to wait three years, after the final wave.

    MD

    Comment by Matthew Di Carlo
    December 22, 2011 at 10:39 AM
  • The analyses of SASS/TFS data discussed in this post can account for #2 and #3.

    I’m especially interested in 3. If a teacher becomes a literacy coach, let’s say, how is that treated? And what is the percentage of teacher attrition that is accounted for by teachers who move to any other job within the school system?

    Comment by Stuart Buck
    December 22, 2011 at 3:12 PM
  • Book Excerpt (parent accountability)
    Battlegrounds: America’s War in Education and Finance: A View From The Front Lines!

    Next, I wish to speak about the relationship between parents and teachers. In my humble opinion, in order for student achievement to function at the optimal level, parental involvement must take place! Students across America perform at their highest level when parents offer their encouragement, love and support for any and all educational activities that students of the modern world will encounter. Let me be clear: all parents must be involved in the educational careers of their children. I will state specific ways in which parents must be involved in order to ensure success:

    A) Parents should know how to support their children’s learning. In order to learn their children’s learning styles, parents must make school personnel partners instead of adversaries.

    B) Parents must ensure that the skills learned in a classroom setting are practiced and mastered in the home.

    C) Parents must ensure that all assignments and projects are completed.

    D) Parents must provide any and all educational materials that are necessary for the success of a child.

    Skills that are a requirement of the modern world aren’t going to just magically materialize. If parents do not take a personal stake in what is occurring educationally, how can parents expect to achieve results?

    The various publications that I have read in my career as an educator, have reiterated the belief that parent teacher communication is of the highest importance if children are going to succeed in the classroom. According to Moore, Kenneth D. (1995) (Classroom Teaching Skills) effective parent communication is essential to teaching and learning. Teachers often make parental contact at the beginning of the school year. I feel that parents in urban situations sabotage their child’s educational experience out of jealousy or just plain apathy. However, most parents are often too busy with daily responsibilities of work in addition to managing the needs of multiple siblings. Furthermore, some parents have a negative attitude toward education in general that interferes with the learning process. I admit that it is a burden for parents to consistently call teachers and inquire about the progress of their child when they have numerous priorities that require their attention. However, I must make this statement and place it in high emphasis: parents have had sexual intercourse which resulted in the creation of a life.

    Comment by Todney Harris
    December 29, 2011 at 5:16 PM
  • [...] [...]

    September 5, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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