A recent federal study found that a much smaller percentage of beginning teachers leave the field in their first five years on the job than the widely quoted figure of 50 percent. It’s 17 percent, according to the new research.
The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics made the new finding in a study released in April. Not extensively reported, the study conflicts with the widely held perception that new teachers experience a high turnover rate. This may be true in some districts, in some regions, but it wasn’t a nationwide trend in the five years studied, 2007-08 through 2011-12.
The longitudinal study, “Public School Teacher Attrition and Mobility in the First Five Years,” found that 10 percent of new teachers in 2007-08 didn’t return the following year, increasing cumulatively to 12 percent in year three, 15 percent in year four and 17 percent in the fifth year. The totals include teachers who were let go and subsequently didn’t find a job teaching in another district.
The most exhaustive study of teacher attrition to date, the study followed 1,900 teachers, with follow-up paper questionnaires and contacts by phone.
The frequently cited statistic that “half of new teachers leave after five years” stems from a 2003 study, also using federal data, by Richard Ingersoll, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, who concluded that between 40 and 50 percent of teachers didn’t return for a sixth year of teaching – one year longer than the new study. His finding was based on yearly approximations. Unlike the current study, the federal report that Ingersoll used didn’t track what happened to individual teachers after the first year. His data included private school teachers and excluded the 3 percent of teachers who left (perhaps on maternity leave) and returned to teach within the five-year period.
Another reason for the differences in findings could be the time periods in which the studies were done. Ingersoll used data on first-year teachers collected in four years between 1988 and 2000. The recent study followed one group of teachers from 2007-08 to 2011-12, during an economic recession that could have affected job mobility, said Isaiah O’Rear, the project officer from the National Center for Education Statistics. The study didn’t delve into that issue, he said. The center is not planning another in-depth study at this point, he said.
The new study didn’t break down the findings by state and region, but it did analyze teachers’ earnings, ages, education and school locations and cited a number of findings:
- Money – 97 percent of teachers who earned more than40,000 their first year returned the next year, compared with 87 percent who earned less than40,000. By the fifth year, 89 percent of those earning40,000 or more were still on the job, compared with 80 percent earning less than40,000.
- Guidance – 92 percent of teachers assigned a mentor their first year returned the next year, and 86 percent were on the job by the fifth year. Only 84 percent of teachers without mentors returned in the second year, declining to 71 percent in the fifth year.
- Degrees – There was no statistically important difference in attrition between teachers who began teaching holding bachelor’s degrees and those with master’s degrees.
- Mobility – By the second year, 16 percent of teachers had moved to another school or district. One-fifth of the “movers” moved involuntarily or didn’t have their contracts renewed.
Reacting to the study, Segun Eubanks, director for Teacher Quality at the National Education Association, said on the NEA website, “Two important findings support what NEA has advocated for a long time. That high-quality mentors and competitive salaries make a difference in keeping teachers.”
Eubanks also said, “Not surprisingly, the study found that teachers who spend their first year in higher-poverty schools are more likely to leave the profession than those who spend their first year in lower-poverty schools.” But O’Rear said the difference – an attrition rate 3 percentage points higher in year five – was not statistically significant.
The study, however, didn’t note which teachers moved to lower-poverty schools after the first year. O’Rear said that a follow-up report, which will delve into more details, will be out later this summer.