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Teacher Turnover Is Confusing

New data released by the National Center for Education Statistics call into question whether teacher attrition is nearly as high as previously believed ("Study: Far fewer new teachers are leaving the profession than previously thought," The Washington Post, Apr. 30). In the first five years in the classroom, only 17 percent of public-school teachers quit. That compares with the oft-repeated figure of nearly 50 percent ("Revolving Door Of Teachers Costs Schools Billions Every Year," npr.org, Mar. 30).

Which figure is correct?  The higher rate was only a "crude approximation," according to Richard Ingersoll, a scholar at the University of Pennsylvania specializing in the teacher workforce. Moreover, his estimate included both public- and private-school teachers, while the National Center for Education Statistics referred only to public-school teachers.

Nevertheless, the huge disparity warrants a closer look. There are going to be many different explanations offered.  But I doubt that improved conditions alone provide a satisfactory explanation.  If anything, they have gotten worse.  For example, pressure to boost standardized test scores have forced teachers to convert their classrooms into test preparation factories.  Another confounding factor is the improved economy that would ordinarily serve as an inducement to leave the profession.

I suspect that the 17 percent turnover is more nuanced than the raw data show.  For example, new teachers with mentors tend to stay; higher salaries reduce churn; and alternative certification is correlated with departure. It will be interesting to see what the teacher turnover rate will be in the next few years as the Common Core Standards gain full traction. Will job satisfaction continue to be the same as today ("Despite Challenges, Most K-12 Teachers Would Recommend the Profession," The Journal,  May 4)?  If the lack of classroom autonomy is as important as researchers report, then the 17 percent figure will be regarded as an aberration.  Right now it's too soon to draw any final conclusions.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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