Deconstructing teacher turnover

Getty Images/shyrlow

During the news lull between Christmas and New Years, the Wall Street Journal published an alarmist piece about the high rate of teachers and other public educators quitting their jobs. Reporters Michelle Hackman and Erick Morath examined Labor Department data on employee turnover during the first ten months of 2018 and found that educators were exiting at the rate of 83 per 10,000 per month, which would work out to almost one in ten over the course of a full year. This, they noted, was the most since job departures began getting tracked in 2001, although they cautioned that it didn’t necessarily mean all were quitting public education altogether; some number of them were changing schools, relocating, etc.

It’s worrying, though, especially when this turnover is combined with the teacher shortages that many districts (and charter and private schools) are facing, creating an absolute inability to fill some jobs with qualified individuals.

Yet making sense of these data requires some context and additional explanation. The journalists provided a bit of the former when they noted that the overall rate of turnover among all American workers during that period—231 per 10,000 per month—was almost triple the rate for public educators. This, too, turns out to be a seventeen-year high. And it’s a lot worse in other fields. Whereas close to 2 percent of educators quit monthly, other state and local employees have been leaving their jobs at almost twice that rate; for those in the “leisure and hospitality” fields, it’s closer to thrice.

That’s not to excuse or minimize the difficulty that many schools are finding when it comes to hiring and retaining first-rate (or even minimally qualified) teachers and other staff members. (We’re seeing that within Fordham’s family of Ohio-based charter schools, too.) Kids’ education definitely suffers when a teacher quits, when a long-term sub or assistant principal fills in, or when the person placed in charge of their classroom lacks the knowledge, experience, or competence to do the job well. That’s much more damaging to society’s future well-being than an abrupt turnover of waiters in your restaurant or clerks at the DMV.

Part of what’s going on in public education is, of course, the same as what’s going on throughout the American economy. First, unemployment is very low right now and jobs are plentiful, so if you’re bored, restless, mobile, or ambitious, it’s a good time to seek a better one, whether that’s in a nicer, richer, safer, or more convenient school, or in another field altogether. Second, tons of baby boomers are retiring, which produces more vacancies to fill—and fewer veterans to fill them. And third, we’re living in an era of job-hopping, career-sampling, and impulse-buying, a time when the typical college graduate works at a bunch of different things before—if ever—“settling down” in something akin to a permanent career. Twenty-somethings going into education are like their agemates going into anything else: I’ll try it and see if I like it. If I don’t, or if I’m just keen to try something else, I can happily move on.

The larger part of what’s going on, however, are the inevitable consequences—unintended, to be sure—of the education industry’s conspicuous failure to anticipate and forestall the HR woes that beset it today. From where I sit, five such failures are particularly notable.

There’s no mechanism for calibrating teacher supply to the demand via either the preparation pipeline or the compensation system. That’s why we face (in most places) a surfeit of generic elementary teachers but a shortage of special-ed, math, and science teachers. Most of our colleges of education encourage people to enroll in whatever they think suits them, not the fields with particular shortages, and public education’s union-enforced refusal to pay differentially means that the middle school gym teacher earns as much as the high school physics teacher. Given what’s going on in the rest of the economy, that’s certain to result in a plentitude of the former and a dearth of the latter.

Though teachers in most places aren’t badly paid when one calculates their compensation on a per-day or per-hour basis (factoring in those six-hour school days and long vacations), and those who stick with it are generally well taken care of when it comes to benefits, it cannot be said that public-school teaching is a high-paying field. Even as per-pupil spending on public education has doubled and tripled over the decades, teacher salaries in most places have barely kept pace with inflation. (In some places, they’ve lagged behind; in some prosperous and heavily taxed communities, they’ve forged ahead.) The main culprit here, as I’ve written before, is our long-standing proclivity to hire more teachers rather than better-compensating those we’ve got. Insofar as paying more generous salaries is a way to induce people to stick with jobs, and to attract abler, better-qualified people into those jobs, American public education has made decades of bad decisions, swelling its teaching ranks—nearing four million now—instead of settling for larger classes in return for smarter, abler, longer-serving—and more generously compensated—instructors.

The unions have encouraged that swelling while blocking the kind of professionalization they say they want for their members. Behaving more like teamsters or steel workers than lawyers, accountants, or musicians, they have insisted that all teachers be treated alike and paid alike; that there be no differentiation or compensation on the basis of performance; that everyone be retained forever—and that weak performers be endlessly defended and protected. That’s no way to earn professional respect or public admiration.

Schools and districts, too, have failed to structure themselves in ways that make the most of a high-turnover situation. Other fields—most obviously the military—do a competent job of integrating short-timers with career staff, blending the freshness, energy (and relatively low cost) of those who just do it for a few years with the wisdom, experience, mentoring, and leadership potential of skilled veterans. But not K–12 education. Sure, some of the top charter networks have figured this out, and yes, some smart districts are engaging instructional coaches to soup up the newbies—though always by adding more staff, which squeezes everyone’s pay. In most places, the beginner teacher is trying to figure it out in a classroom down the hall from a veteran who has mastered it.

With a growing handful of exceptions, American public education is also woefully behind in developing the kind of “blended” classrooms that supplement teachers with technology in ways that compensate for inexperience and blind spots on the part of some instructors, while enabling the skilled veterans to manage (and individualize) more kids without missing a beat.

Finally, and most obviously, we throw endless unpleasantness into the paths of teachers, starting with policies that make it impossible for them to discipline (or evict) the malefactors in their classrooms. Inconveniences such as no classroom (or desk or computer terminal or parking space) of one’s own. Parents who don’t do their part—and complain when the teacher is too strict or doesn’t give enough A’s. Politicians who meddle with curriculum. And administrators (and policymakers) whose overemphasis on test scores in reading and math squeezes out other content, even as they promote into one’s class kids who are far below grade level.

Who in their right mind would want to stick with such a job?

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.