Why do teachers leave their jobs?

iStock_000015653963XSmallTo improve teacher retention, administrators and policymakers should focus on statewide data on teacher mobility rather than merely looking at large national databases,  say a group of  Washington State researchers.

Teacher attrition and turnover have important policy implications and by examining these issues within a single state system we may be able to better understand where mobility is having its greatest impact,” Ana Elfers, Margaret Plecki and Michael Knapp write in a recent issue of the Peabody Journal of Education.

The reasons teachers leave their jobs, and their patterns of mobility,  may be different at the local level. For example,  in their study of teacher turnover in Washington State, researchers found that while novice teachers are notoriously mobile, relatively few early-career teachers were leaving the state system.

Five years after they began teaching, 72% of beginning teachers were still in the state education system although only 44% were in the same school. While teachers moved within districts, especially larger districts, very few–9%, the state average for all teachers–moved to another district. The study also found that teachers of color, who account for 7% of state teachers, were not disproportionately mobile.

Even though the retention rates of novice teachers are relatively high compared to some national findings (Ingersoll & Smith, 2003), it is still important to consider the factors that impact retention of novice teachers at school and district levels, and where policymakers might effectively focus their efforts,” the researchers say.

Movers important to picture

The researchers note that it is important to look at the “movers”, those who move to other districts or to private schools, as well as the stayers (those who stay in the same district or school) and leavers (those who exit the profession).

In Washington State, teachers most frequently cited the following reasons as moderate or strong factors in the decision to leave a school:

  • The amount of support at home for students’ learning (e.g. homework help, positive attitudes toward schooling–35%
  • Degree to which time is built into the school day, week, or  year for professional learning–34%
  • Resources of financial incentives to support professional learning–33%
  • Nature of support services to meet students’ needs–30%
  • Level of disciplinary issues in teaching students at this school–29%
  • Fairness in how staff are treated–25%

Regional Differences

Salary  was “not a factor” in the decision to consider leaving according to 30% of teachers, the study says. But there were regional differences between western Washington and eastern Washington on this issue, with more western Washington teachers seeing it as an issue than eastern Washington teachers.

The state has a relatively equalized teacher compensation system, the researchers note, with most districts following the state salary level, which may account for the fairly low movement from district to district, the researchers say.

At the district level, the factor mentioned most frequently as a moderate or strong reason to leave (45% of all teachers) was too much emphasis by the district on testing.  Nearly a third of veterans (32%) consider the academic performance of the district a strong reason to stay, compared with 14% of novices.

Top reasons teachers gave for the decision to stay in their current schools include the following:

  • My teaching assignment–75%
  • Presence of staff with whom I feel comfortable working–68%
  • Stability in assignment–65%
  • Collegial community with teachers–63%
  • Geographic region or school locale–60%

Mobility and student characteristics

For the study, the researchers analyzed a longitudinal database with all Washington State classroom teachers from 1996 to 2002; 20 districts were selected for in-depth examination. The researchers also conducted “fast-response” surveys of standing samples of classroom teachers in two recent school years, 2003-2004 and 2004-2005.

Fast-response surveys are short surveys of teachers who have agreed in advance to participate and who receive a modest honorarium for doing so.  The surveys explored the reasons for mobility, such as vacancies, teacher assignments or the elimination of positions at school.

Student characteristics were also included as factors in teacher retention in an examination of schools in six individual large districts. In all six districts, researchers say, teacher retention is negatively related to student poverty. In one urban and two suburban districts, teacher retention is related both to poverty and measures of student learning.

“Although this analysis alone cannot establish a causal relation among poverty, retention, and student learning,” the researchers write, “there is a plausible case to be made that greater instability in a school’s teaching force is likely to contribute, on average, to lower performance, and that this might be especially so in schools serving high concentrations of students from low-income families.”

In high-poverty schools, teachers cited the following as reasons for leaving a school:

  • The amount of support at home for students’ learning (e.g. homework help, positive attitudes toward schooling)–62%
  • Level of disciplinary issues in teaching  students at the school–53%
  • Nature of support services to meet students’ needs–44%
  • Resources or incentives to support professional learning–43%
  • Ease of communication with parents about their children’s learning–40%

In low-poverty schools, teachers cited the following as reasons for staying at a school:

  • Degree to which a respectful and orderly learning environment has been established–59%
  • Support in dealing with parents and students–58%
  • Fairness in how staff are treated–52%
  • Degree of focus on student performance in the classroom–48%
  • Organization of time in the school day–32%

In high-poverty schools, the researchers write,  the amount of support for students’ learning and the resources and incentives to support teacher professional learning, are crucial for retaining staff.  Schools with high mobility rates are likely to have disproportionate numbers of students in poverty or students of color.

“Teacher Mobility: Looking More Closely at “The Movers” Within a State System,” Peabody Journal of Education, Volume 81, Number 3, Pps. 94-127.

Published in ERN December 2006 Volume 19 Number 9

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