Half of new teachers quit profession in 5 years? Not true, new study says

July 16, 2015

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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

“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,” said Segun Eubanks, director for Teacher Quality at the National Education Association.

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:

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.

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