What Teachers Need: Research into Why Teachers Leave the Profession Is Helping Lawmakers Craft Better Policies to Hold onto Them

By Exstrom, Michelle | State Legislatures, September 2009 | Go to article overview

What Teachers Need: Research into Why Teachers Leave the Profession Is Helping Lawmakers Craft Better Policies to Hold onto Them


Exstrom, Michelle, State Legislatures


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Todd Allen, a young, enthusiastic special education teacher, was living his lifelong dream of working in an urban school. In his first three years, he was optimistic about his career. He felt he was making a difference in the lives of his students.

But after his fourth year of teaching, things changed. Allen became disillusioned by the ever-mounting federal and state administrative requirements for special education and the disappearance of aides. He left his hard-to-staff position and went into fifth grade general education.

Dustin Kramer faced similar frustration. He was a middle school social studies teacher in his rural home town, but after seven years grew frustrated with a disengaged principal who rarely visited his classroom and made little effort to enforce appropriate student behavior. He felt a similar lack of support from his superintendent. He often worked late hours and questioned whether it was all worth only $37,000 per year. Kramer ended up leaving teaching to try his hand as a financial adviser.

While frustrated employees often look for new jobs, teachers are of particular concern because new and veteran teachers are leaving in large numbers, and many older teachers will soon be retiring.

"Teacher turnover is not cost free. We have long recognized this in the private sector, and now we need to recognize this in the public education sector as well," says Richard Ingersoll, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "There are significant costs associated with recruiting, inducting, mentoring and training new hires."

Researchers have long conducted national studies to understand why teachers leave the profession. A new effort, however, is focusing on studies at the state and district level that lawmakers say is giving them new insights into why teachers quit.

At least 10 states have made these efforts in the last two years and have found some surprises, including that low salaries are not the top reason teachers leave.

A DIFFERENT APPROACH

Ingersoll has reported that about one-third of new teachers leave the classroom within the first three years, and as many as half leave after just five years. And a new report from the National Commission on Teacher and America's Future predicts that as many as 50 percent will retire over the upcoming decade. School districts all over the country struggle, in particular, to get and keep math, science and special education teachers.

Using a national survey of school personnel conducted by the U.S. Department of Education in 2000-2001, Ingersoll found several factors for dissatisfied teachers: too little preparation time, heavy teaching load, poor salary and benefits, and a lack of say in factors that affect teaching and student achievement. Other researches found similar results.

"Most of these results are pretty common sense," says Ingersoll. "Nothing is really too surprising. This confirms what we all might guess."

State lawmakers, however, wanted more specific information about why teachers were leaving jobs in their states.

In 2002, North Carolina policymakers became the first to design a survey to ask educators about their working conditions, under the direction of Governor Mike Easley and the North Carolina Professional Teaching Standards Commission. The survey was sent out to every licensed public school educator in the state. In spring 2008, North Carolina repeated the survey for the fourth time, with 87 percent of the state's educators completing it and making school-specific data available for every one of the state's traditional public schools.

"We knew we had a teacher shortage and didn't fully understand why we couldn't get enough teachers or keep the ones we had," says Representative Maggie Jeffus, a retired educator and strong supporter of the survey.

Jeffus thinks the survey gave lawmakers a better handle on how to hold onto teachers. …

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