Think You Know About Teacher Attrition?

Every four years, with the release of the Teacher Follow-Up Survey (TFS), we get what is virtually our only source of reliable information on the rates of and reasons for teacher attrition in the U.S.

The survey is a supplement to the much larger Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), which is also conducted every four years by the National Center for Education Statistics. The SASS is an extensive survey of characteristics, conditions, and other variables of over 30,000 teachers across the nation. The TFS simply contacts a sample of the SASS participants the following year to see if they’re still teaching, and if not, what they’re doing. For this round, the 2007-08 SASS respondents were contacted again in 2008-09 for the TFS.

The TFS divides respondents into three categories: stayers (teachers in the same school as last year); movers (teachers who are still teaching but in a different school and/or district); and leavers (teachers who left teaching for whatever reason, including retirement). Overall, among public school teachers in 2008-09, 84.5 percent were stayers, 7.6 percent were movers, and 7.9 percent were leavers (note that these are annual, not cumulative rates).

While some of the TFS results are unsurprising, there may be plenty about teacher attrition that you thought you knew but didn’t.

Overall teacher attrition (i.e. percent of leavers) has increased over the past two decades, but has gone down over the past four years. The percent of teachers leaving the profession is up 43 percent since 1988-89 (from 5.6 to 7.9 percent). Some of this, though, is due to increasing retirement: 27.8 percent of leavers retired in 2008-09, compared with 22.5 percent in 1988-89. The short-term trends are considerably different. Not only has there not been an increase in attrition over the past four years, it actually decreased from 8.4 to 7.9 percent. There is, however, a net increase since 2000-01, from 7.4 to 7.9 percent.

The attrition rate among new teachers (1-3 years), on the other hand, is 9.1 percent, up from 8.1 percent in 2004-05.

Charter school teachers are 58 percent more likely to leave teaching than regular public school teachers – 12.5 versus 7.9 percent. They are also more likely to change schools or districts (“movers”) – 11.4 versus 7.5 percent. Charter schools turn over about one-quarter of their teachers every year.

Leaving rates vary by subject taught and school type. Attrition is highest among special education (12.3 percent) and English teachers (10.5). It is lowest among arts/music (4.1) and early childhood teachers (5.6). Secondary school teachers have higher leaving rates (8.8) than elementary teachers (7.5).

Here are a few selected findings about the public school “leavers” that you might not find intuitive. Although differences in retirement rates may be driving these findings to some degree, it is unlikely that they explain all of them completely.

Attrition is lower in cities (7.5) than in rural (8.4) or suburban schools (8.3). The "moving rate" (teachers moving to other schools/districts), in contrast, is higher in cities (8.0) versus suburbs (7.5) and rural areas (7.2). Still, if we add up leavers and movers, this "churn rate" is still slightly lower in cities.

Attrition is lowest in the poorest schools. It is lowest in the schools with more than 75 percent of students eligible for free or reduced lunch (5.1), and highest in schools with 35-49 percent eligibility (10.3). Again, though, the moving rate increases with poverty: from 5.9 percent in the lowest poverty schools to 10.3 in the highest. As a a result, total churn is much higher in poorer schools.

More experienced teachers move to other districts at a lower rate than less experienced teachers. Among movers with over four years of experience, 42.3 percent changed districts, compared with 53.5 percent of movers with three or fewer years.

Most leavers who get other jobs stay in education. Among departing teachers, about 25 percent retired, and another 25 percent of so took another non-teaching job in education. Only nine percent left for a different job outside of education. Most of the rest left to care for family members, return to school, or are unemployed.

In summary, then, there seems to be three main takeaways from this round of the TFS. First, the pending flood of teacher retirements has not yet begun in earnest, and teacher attrition in general has not increased over the past few years (no doubt this is in part due to many teachers staying put and/or delaying retirement during a recession). There is, however, a sizeable increase in leaving among newer teachers (1-3 years). Second, teacher attrition is not necessarily high in the presumed places, such as cities and high-poverty districts (though the rate at which teachers change schools is higher). Third and finally, total “churn” (leavers and movers) is remarkably high in public charter schools, with roughly one-quarter of all charter school teachers leaving the schools every year.