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5 Things to Know About Today's Teaching Force

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The teaching force has continued to grow larger, less experienced, and more racially diverse. And the high numbers of teacher turnover have continued, especially among inexperienced and nonwhite teachers, a new analysis shows. 

Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, has studied nearly three decades of federal data on teachers—now from 1987 to 2016—to explore what changes have taken place over time. This new report is his latest update, using 2015-16 data from the National Teacher Principal Survey. Here are some of the key findings:

1. Forty-four percent of new teachers leave teaching within five years. 

Almost two decades ago, Ingersoll estimated that up to 50 percent of those who become teachers quit within five years—a figure that has been widely shared. That was always a rough estimate, and this new figure uses national longitudinal data and is more accurate, the report says. 

Of course, given the ballooning of the teaching force, there are more beginners in the teaching force than before. Still, it's a high attrition rate. Teachers leave the profession at a higher rate than many other professionals, including police officers, Ingersoll said.

2. The teaching profession has continued to grow far faster than the student population. The growth of teacher hiring leveled off during the recession, Ingersoll said, but "it has picked up with a vengence." 

From 1987-88 to 2015-16, total K-12 student enrollment (in public, private, and charter schools) has increased by 20 percent. During the same time period, the teaching force has increased at more than three times that rate—by 64 percent.

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"I see it as a ticking time bomb, just in terms of the affordability," Ingersoll said, adding that the ballooning of the teaching forces could cost an additional 30 billion dollars or more. 

Ingersoll said he's not entirely sure of all the reasons behind this trend, but it's partly due to public demand: reduced class sizes in elementary school, more special education and English-as-a-second-language teachers, more math and science teachers, and more elementary enrichment specialists.

"But there's a price to be paid for all these things that the public wants," he said. "That's an important trend, and I just think we're going to hear more about it."

While Ingersoll's analysis is of national data, the Education Week Research Center found that there are four states that have bucked the trend and have experienced larger growth in their student population than teaching force. Those states include Arizona and Oklahoma, both of which have recently experienced significant teacher unrest due to unfavorable working conditions. 

3. The "graying" of the teaching force is largely over, and the profession is becoming more "green." For the last two decades, the most common age of a public school teacher continued to rise, reaching 55 by 2007-08. Now, the most common age has decreased and also spread out—it ranges from the mid-30s to the mid-40s. 

"It's not that there's not gray hair in the teaching force, but the percentage [of teachers near retirement]—that's reached its peak and is now starting to go down," Ingersoll said. 

Having an aging teaching profession is expensive, given that veteran teachers earn higher salaries and that when teachers retire, they will start collecting from states' underfunded pension systems. 

However, the report notes, "not only have retirees been replaced with newcomers, but the flow of newcomers has become a flood." There has been a huge increase in new hires of teachers, and while many of those are recent college graduates, others are leaving another career to join teaching.  

In 2015-16, about 42 percent of newly hired teachers in public school were age 29 or older, and about 19 percent were over 40 years old. 

The increase in new hires has led to a dramatic increase in the number of beginner teachers. In 1987-88, the most common public school teacher had 15 years of teaching experience. By 2007-08, the most common teacher was a beginner in his or her first year of teaching. After the recession, by 2011-12, the most common teacher was in his or her fifth year. But now, in 2015-16, the most common public school teacher is in his or her first three years of teaching. (The average teacher has 14 years experience, but Ingersoll is looking at the modal value, or what's most common.) 

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4. Teaching is becoming a more racially diverse profession, but retention is a problem. While teaching is still predominately white, the percentage of all nonwhite public school teachers has increased from 12.5 percent in 1987-88 to 19.9 percent in 2015-16. In fact, growth in the number of nonwhite teachers has outpaced growth in nonwhite students and was more than three times the growth rate of white teachers. 

Still, the rate at which nonwhite teachers leave the profession is much higher than that of white teachers, and it's increasing. Ingersoll calls the problem a "leaky bucket"—the high turnover rates are undermining the work to recruit racially diverse candidates into the profession. 

5. The teaching profession is becoming even more female.

Since the early 1980s, there has been a steady increase in the percentage of female public school teachers, Ingersoll found—from 67 percent in 1980-81 to over 76 percent in 2015-16. The number of male teachers has also gone up, but not at the same rate. 

If this trend continues, an increasing number of students will encounter few, if any, male teachers during their entire K-12 experience (but especially at the elementary level).

"It's interesting," Ingersoll said. "All [these career opportunities have] opened up to women, but nevertheless teaching drives women in droves."

Ingersoll said he hopes to do future research to explore the reasons behind this shift. It's possibly in part because the schedule of teaching allows mothers to balance their work and their family obligations, or because there are now career advancement opportunities available for female teachers—about half of principals are women. 

Image via Getty, charts via Ingersoll et al

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