Over the past few years, teacher retention rates are up significantly, especially compared to the estimate floating around since the early 2000’s that 40 to 50 percent of teachers leave the profession in the first five years. More recently, some states — like North Carolina and Colorado, where, in 2015, more teachers left their school districts than in the past 15 years — have been struggling to keep teachers in place. What can be done to ensure falling retention rates don’t become a nationwide trend? From low pay to lack of support, there are many reasons why schools struggle to keep teachers in the classroom. It’s clear that keeping retention rates from sinking again requires smart strategies on the part of schools and districts.
In the education debates that have been waged over the past decade, education experts often cited an alarming statistic: 50 percent of new teachers leave after the first five years. That statistic comes from a paper authored by Richard Ingersoll, a University of Pennsylvania professor who analyzed national teacher retention rates based on data reported from 1987 to 2001.
A much more recent study, however, sheds more hope on the retention situation. According to a study released by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics in 2015, the five-year attrition rate for new teachers is closer to 17 percent, not 50. Teachers are staying in the classroom longer, and several factors are contributing to this upward trend, including higher teacher pay and more mentorship and guidance. EdSource also posits that the time period for the newer study explains part of the discrepancy with Ingersoll’s study. The DOE study uses data that started with the 2007-2008 school year, which was when the recession hit and jobs became far more scarce — perhaps prompting teachers to stay in their current positions.
While the new numbers aren’t quite so alarming, a 17 percent five-year attrition rate still causes concern. In fact, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, teacher attrition costs the U.S. up to $2.2 billion annually.
There are several reasons why teachers not only leave their schools or districts, but the profession altogether. One reason is pay. According to National Education Association research, teacher pay has fallen sharply over the last 60 years compared to other professions that require a four-year college degree. For example, while the average starting teacher salary is $30,377, the average starting registered nurse salary is $45,570, a starting accountant salary is $44,668, and computer programmers start at $43,635. Teachers’ benefits don’t make up for the discrepancy in pay.
Teachers also struggle with a lack of support at school, particularly from the administration. A 2008 study of New York City teachers found a strong correlation between a teacher’s assessment of an administration and the likelihood that a teacher would leave. Even when controlling for certain key factors, like the demographic composition of students, the study found that teachers with a poor perception of the administration were more likely to leave the school by a significant margin. With more and more education components being dictated at the state and federal level — such as the Common Core Standards — many teachers are left feeling like they no longer have a voice in their own schools. A lack of support from administrators only adds to the problem.
Teachers also struggle with the myth that they have a cushy work-life balance, what with six hour days and summers off. In reality, though, the lack of work-life balance can be a deal-breaker for some teachers. Rarely do teachers finish grading homework or planning lessons during their designated planning periods, so that work goes home with them, while training sessions or summer school teaching eat into their summers.
There are ways that school districts can entice more teachers to stay. A top tactic? Higher pay. In their study cited previously, the NEA found that 97 percent of first-year teachers who earned more than $40,000 returned for a second year, compared with just 87 percent who earned less than $40,000. Hawaii, meanwhile, is combining financial incentives with an innovative outreach program. The state has been struggling greatly to retain teachers, particularly on its more isolated islands, so teams in search of teachers have been sent to major cities in the U.S., like Chicago and L.A., to recruit applicants. This “on-the-ground” approach to teacher recruitment may work for other areas facing a teacher shortage or low teacher retention, like North Carolina and Colorado.
Unfortunately, some regions in the U.S. face much higher rates of teacher attrition, particularly urban centers. High poverty rates in urban areas could be to blame, or are at least factor of alarming attrition rates, with schools experiencing tighter budgets and many students lacking support at home. Writing at The Atlantic, Paul Barnwell says that, on average, high-poverty public schools, especially those in urban areas, lose up to a fifth of their faculty annually.
Many states are now brainstorming and implementing programs that incentivize teachers to stay. For example, Maryland just launched its Teacher Induction, Retention and Advancement Act. The pilot program focuses on providing first-year teachers with more support through mentorships, planning assistance, and peer observations. Two school districts in New Jersey also recently launched a program focused on first-year teacher retention, in partnership with Kean University. The program aims to improve veteran teachers’ in-classroom leadership skills in the hopes that they can then mentor newer teachers and impart those skills. A focus on mentorship seems like the right direction. School districts in Iowa have revamped their retention programs to focus more on mentorship, with promising results: retention rates are up! Other programs focused on mentorship, and community involvement and support have also been cropping up in districts across the U.S., reshaping the future of teacher retention into a bright one.