Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

The Influence of Classroom Characteristics on High School Teacher Turnover

Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

The Influence of Classroom Characteristics on High School Teacher Turnover

Article excerpt


A number of authors have suggested that the U.S. will face a shortage of qualified teachers in the near future, especially in the areas of math and science.(1) School districts facing such a shortage could respond in a variety of ways. For instance, hiring standards could be lowered, teachers could be asked to teach outside their areas of certification, or, funds permitting, starting salaries could be increased in an effort to attract the most promising candidates.

Still another option would be to raise teaching loads (i.e., average class size or the number of classes taught), thus making do with fewer teachers. This option is particularly alluring in light of the fact that average class size has been falling rapidly in the U.S. over the last twenty years, and yet no strong connection between smaller classes and increased student learning has been established.(2)

There is, however, a possible hidden cost that needs to be investigated before recommending such a course of action. If teachers respond to larger or more frequent classes by quitting, then a district that tries to solve its hiring problems in this fashion could simply be increasing its demand for new teachers.

This paper uses data from the New York State Education Department's Personnel Master File for the years 1979 to 1989 in order to investigate whether an increased teaching load affects the likelihood that a teacher will leave his or her district. In order to obtain an unbiased sample of job lengths, the sample is restricted to full-time high school teachers who were newly hired in 1979.(3) We estimate a discrete-time hazard model in which teaching load is measured as the average class size taught by an individual, the number of classes taught, and the proportion of classes taught in the teacher's certified area. In interpreting our results we pay special attention to whether the behavior of math and science teachers differs from that of other teachers. This is an important issue because shortages of qualified teachers in these two areas are predicted to be especially acute.


The market for teachers differs from a well-functioning neoclassical labor market in that salaries are determined through a political process involving various levels of government, the public, and often teachers unions.(4) If the demand for teachers increases as retirements and student enrollment increase, then starting salaries cannot be counted on to quickly move to the market-clearing level, and thus a shortage of teachers becomes a possibility.(5) Few observers, however, believe that there will be an actual shortage of warm bodies. The more likely scenario is that there will be a lack of teachers trained in specific areas and of high-quality teachers in general (see Murnane et al. [1991,1-2]).

Given a limited budget, what are the options available to a school district facing this type of shortage? The district could settle for hiring lower quality teachers, but this might be seen as an unnecessary measure, with long-term implications, taken in response to what could be a temporary situation. Another option that has been suggested is to increase teacher workloads.(6) Whether this option is workable depends, in part, on the exit decisions of teachers.

A large number of empirical studies have investigated the determinants of teacher turnover. However, no work specifically directed toward capturing the effect of increased teaching responsibilities on turnover has been done.(7) Without knowing whether such an effect exists, and what the magnitude of it might be, informed policy decisions at the district level in response to a shortage of qualified teachers becomes impossible.

Past studies have shown that the probability of a teacher leaving his or her job is high in the first few years after entering the profession, falls after the third year,(8) and again increases as the teacher nears retirement age (Murnane et al. …

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