Unraveling the "Teacher Shortage" Problem: Teacher Retention is the Key

National Commission on Teaching and America's Future
August 2002

The National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (NCTAF) has released a new report on teacher retention based on data analyzed by the very busy Richard Ingersoll. NCTAF complains that the conventional wisdom holds that we don't have enough teachers, or enough good teachers, while the real problem is a staggering teacher turnover and attrition rate. The main reasons teachers give for leaving their jobs are poor working conditions (in high-poverty schools) and low salaries (in low-poverty schools). To tame attrition rates, NCTAF proposes a three-part strategy: 1) downsize and reorganize schools into smaller learning communities focused on achieving clear instructional objectives, 2) ensure that all teacher preparation programs meet high standards, and 3) establish mentoring programs and rewarding career paths for accomplished teachers. While reorganizing schools so that they better support teaching and learning is a no-brainer, downsizing schools is a peculiar recommendation, given that Ingersoll's data show that turnover is a bit higher in small public schools (16.4 percent) than in large ones (14.5 percent) and that it's much higher in small private schools (21.8 percent) than in large ones (13.5 percent). Advocating more teacher preparation has long been NCTAF's bread and butter, and we are pleased to see that the organization now favors "an end to the debate over 'alternative' vs. 'traditional' teacher preparation," stressing the importance of "ensuring that all teacher preparation programs-alternative and traditional-set and meet high standards." NCTAF argues that teachers hired through certain kinds of alternative certification programs leave teaching at higher rates, which may be true, but begs the question of what degree of teacher turnover might be acceptable, even desirable. It is notoriously difficult to identify effective teachers before they set foot in a classroom; if some of the turnover lamented in the report is made up of individuals who were not cut out for teaching, then this attrition is not a bad thing. And if outstanding individuals who make fine teachers want to spend only part of their working lives in the classroom, this may not be so bad either. Many private schools succeed with a core group of experienced teachers constantly mentoring a continuous stream of bright, energetic younger instructors. It may be necessary to dig deeper into the turnover statistics-19.7 percent a year for private school teachers, 12.9 percent a year for teachers in low-poverty public schools, and 15.7 percent a year for teachers in public schools overall-to determine which parts of the turnover are the real problem. This report is available at http://www.nctaf.org/whatsnew/index.html.

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