Teacher Retention In An Era Of Rapid Reform

The Center for American Progress (CAP) recently released a short report on whether teachers were leaving the profession due to reforms implemented during the Obama Administration, as some commentators predicted.

The authors use data from the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), a wonderful national survey of U.S. teachers, and they report that 70 percent of first-year teachers in 2007-08 were still teaching in 2011-12. They claim that this high retention of beginning teachers, along with the fact that most teachers in 2011-12 had five or more years of experience, show that “the teacher retention concerns were unfounded."

This report raises a couple of important points about the debate over teacher retention during this time of sweeping reform.

First, however, I must point out that, due to an analytical error, the 70 percent retention figure is incorrect. The authors wanted to see how many first year teachers from 2007-08 were still in the profession in 2011-12. What they did was identify fifth-year teachers (in 2011-12), and then looked at these teachers’ responses to another question asking their first year of teaching. 70 percent said it was 2007-08 (five years earlier), and so the CAP report concludes that 30 percent of first year teachers in 2007-08 had left the profession.

In reality, none of those respondents had left. They were SASS respondents in 2011-12, which means they were still teachers. Some of the 30 percent that reported starting in a year other than 2007-08 may have left teaching temporarily at some point and returned (e.g., maternal leave). Or they may have miscalculated. In any case, the 70 percent is not a retention rate at all. The SASS, by itself, cannot be used even to ballpark attrition/retention.

(And, by the way, the fact that most teachers had five or more years of experience in 2011-12 doesn’t really tell  you much about attrition/retention.)

To their credit, though, the CAP authors go on to cite data from the Beginning Teachers Longitudinal Survey (BTLS), which was, a bit ironically, specifically designed to estimate directly attrition/retention among teachers who started their careers in 2007-08. The BTLS is following a sample of first year teachers from the 2007-08 SASS sample for a period of five years (contacting them every year) to see where they end up.

So far, the BTLS has only reported results up to 2009-10 (the third year of the initial sample of first-year teachers), and finds that only 12.5 percent of these teachers had left the profession. This is extraordinarily low – far lower than previous estimates. The CAP report correctly notes that it’s not possible to identify why retention of first year teachers is so high, but they lead off with the recession as a major factor, and I think that’s the most likely explanation. When the labor market is bad, people tend to think three times before leaving their jobs voluntarily, and teachers are no exception.*

(It’s also interesting to note, as do the report’s authors, that a quarter of these leavers exited because their contracts were not renewed – i.e., involuntarily.)

So, were the teacher retention concerns “unfounded?"

Although I tend to agree with the CAP report that some of the predictions of waves of teacher attrition due to recent reforms seem way overblown, and also that there is not yet any evidence of it occurring (and even some tentative evidence that it is not). It is nonetheless an empirical question, and I would say that it’s way too early to render even tentative judgments (especially at the national level).

Most basically, although the BTLS suggests that the 2007-08 cohort of new teachers are being retained at very high rates, at least up to 2009-10, this is just one cohort (one that entered the labor market at a rather perilous time), which represents a small fraction of the total teacher workforce, including millions of more experienced teachers. The results from the Teacher Follow-Up Survey, which contacts a sub-sample of SASS teachers a year later to see where they ended up, will be out shortly, and will provide some very tentative idea of attrition rates and why respondents report having left (see this post for a discussion of the 2008-09 figures). Again, though, I would be very surprised if attrition was higher than in 2008-09, given the state of the labor market.

Second, although over 30 states have passed laws requiring new teacher evaluations, most of the new systems are in only their first or second year (if they’ve been fully implemented at all). These are rather recent developments, and it will be some time before their effects on all sorts of outcomes are manifested.

Finally, as always, it will be difficult to gauge whether these policies themselves have had even a short-term influence on teacher retention (and, as mentioned above, the recession will make the situation even more difficult). In other words, research on this topic will have to contend with the usual complications of separating out all the possible factors that contribute to teachers’ labor market decisions, and the effects of new reforms (if any) will almost certainly vary quite a bit within and between states; most analyses of this phenomenon will probably have to proceed at the district- and state levels. And, at any level, simply looking at raw attrition/retention rates is certainly a useful exercise, but it is generally not sufficient for drawing strong conclusions.

(Side note: It bears mentioning that not all attrition is harmful, as some teachers exit simply because they're not doing so well. This is an obvious point, but it would seem to be particularly salient in the context of whether teachers will leave due to new accountability policies.)

So, overall, it remains to be seen whether the wave of new teacher-related reforms, most notably teacher evaluations, will drive significant numbers of teachers from the profession. To reiterate, my personal opinion -- and that’s all it is -- is that there will certainly be (and probably already are) some teachers who are disillusioned with the new policies and choose to quit, but they are unlikely to leave in droves, even when/if the economy continues to improve.
That said, even if retention is indeed higher than the pessimists predict, I would be very careful not to dismiss concerns about teachers’ opinions about the reforms. Even if they stay in the profession, how teachers respond to the policies will play a major role in determining their impacts.

- Matt Di Carlo


* It’s a tragedy that the BTLS, which would have been invaluable for addressing long-standing questions regarding the extent and nature of beginning teacher attrition/retention, began just as the recession kicked into full force. The data will still be very useful, of course, but it’s implausible to believe that the results of this survey are indicative of more “normal” economic conditions.


What about the economy? I know several teaches who are miserable and say they would leave in a heartbeat if the could find something else. Could the economy be acting as a vacuum keeping people stuck to teaching.

About seven years ago in my hometown we were advertising in Canada, India and the business world because we didn't have enough teachers. We haven't had to do that in a while but nobody i know thinks things have gotten better in the classroom.


In my copious free time, I need to finish a paper I owe a friend adjusting this for age. A substantial limitation in the literature is the treatment of 22-year-olds in their first year the same as 39-year-olds in their first year.