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Which Teachers Are Most Likely to Leave School Mid-Year?

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By the end of their third year of teaching, little more than 1 in 3 novice educators are still teaching in the school where they started their careers—and a quarter of those don't even wait for the end of the school year to leave.

"That was surprising, to see the difference in turnover that's happening during the school year," said Christopher Redding, an assistant education professor at the University of Florida and co-author of a new study in the American Educational Research Journal that tracks teachers leaving month by month in their first three years on the job.

While prior research has focused on the damage caused by student mobility, the researchers found teacher turnover during the year hurts students as well, by forcing them to adjust to short or long-term substitutes in addition to the teacher's permanent replacement. On average, the study found students whose teacher left mid-year lost about 54 days' worth of academic growth—nearly a third of a school year—compared to students whose teachers stayed all year. 

Redding of the University of Florida and Gary Henry of Vanderbilt University identified more than 13,600 first-time teachers who entered North Carolina classrooms from 2010 to 2012, and tracked them monthly during their first three years in the profession. While most prior research has looked at teacher turnover annually, the study found differences in which new teachers leave at different times of the year. 

They found 6 percent of novice teachers leave during each school year in their first three years, and comparing mid-year data to overall information on teacher turnover revealed some surprising nuances in who leaves:

  • While novice women teachers have been previously shown to be more likely to leave than their male counterparts, the study suggested this was primarily caused by brief, mid-year time out from teaching—potentially due to family leave, Redding noted. By contrast, new male teachers were more likely to leave at the end of the school year, but for good. 
  • In spite of the prevalence of traditional "last hired, first fired" seniority rules, fewer than 15 percent were dismissed or involuntarily transferred from their schools.
  • Training mattered: While teachers from university-based education programs were most likely to switch schools mid-year, teachers from alternative training programs were more likely to leave teaching altogether. 

Prior research suggests novice teachers are more likely to be assigned to schools with higher concentrations of students in poverty or from racial minorities, the turnover data suggests that's a mistake. An increase of one standard deviation in a school's underserved population increased a teacher's risk of leaving mid-year by 27 percent.

"There's a sense of different stressors that are put on new teachers are elevated in these schools, and ... I think we did find some evidence of that being the case," Redding said. "I think it's notable that we're still finding [a higher risk of teachers leaving mid-year from high-poverty and high-minority schools] even when we're controlling for some of the school working conditions, like the degree of distributed leadership or of principal leadership."

In the end, he said, the findings suggest school and district leaders should consider mid-year attrition, particularly when working to improve teacher retention overall.

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