The US is having a hard time keeping teachers in their jobs

A teaching moment.
A teaching moment.
Image: Reuters/David Ryder
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One way to protest low wages is to go on strike. That’s what teachers in the US have recently been doing in many states, like West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona.

Another option is to quit. A new analysis by the US Census Bureau suggests an increasing number of teachers are taking on new jobs:

Some turnover is normal, even healthy, as teachers leave to find schools or different professions that suit them better. In 2015, the latest data available, a bit more than 1 million teachers left for a different job, in education or another industry. Less encouragingly, that same year 1.8 million teachers became “persistently nonemployed”—Census lingo for teachers who didn’t find a job elsewhere after leaving their position.

Turnover can be particularly destabilizing in education. The Learning Policy Institute described the toll it takes in a report (pdf):

In particular, when turnover contributes to teacher shortages, schools often respond by hiring inexperienced or unqualified teachers, increasing class sizes, or cutting class offerings, all of which impact student learning. Research is clear that both teacher inexperience and rates of turnover negatively impact student learning, which means that students in schools with high turnover and few experienced teachers are at a decided educational disadvantage.

What’s more, teacher turnover is far higher in poor districts and among teachers of color, who are more likely to have students of color. Overall, around 8% of teachers leave the profession every year, according to the Learning Policy Institute, citing Department of Education data. (Another 8% move to other jobs in education.) Less than a third of teacher attrition is down to retirement. “In other words, each year schools nationwide must hire tens of thousands of teachers as a result of beginning and mid-career teachers leaving the profession,” the institute noted. In well-regarded school systems in places like Canada, Finland, and Singapore, attrition rates are more like 3% or 4%, according to the report.

Where are these teachers going? Those who don’t move to other jobs in education tend to choose roles in healthcare and social assistance—jobs in nursing, child care, and family assistance require similar skills to teaching, after all. Administrative jobs, like office work, also draw teachers away from education.

Teachers switching to these industries isn’t all that surprising, given that they are some of the largest sectors in the economy. Such roles, on average, tend to pay less than teaching jobs, but they may come with better benefits and more job stability, according to another analysis by the Learning Policy Institute (pdf).

Census data also suggests that teachers tend to leave for new jobs, whether in education or outside the industry, in the prime of their careers. (That’s pretty typical for job-hoppers in general, who tend to be young.) Men, at almost every age, are more likely to leave their teaching jobs than women, but both groups’ departure rates peak in their 20s and 30s, when they have many more decades of their careers to come.

The Learning Policy Institute thinks better compensation packages—higher pay and more generous benefits—might stem the tide of teachers leaving the industry. The biggest reason teachers cited for leaving, whether it was to retire or take another job, was dissatisfaction—with the teaching profession, the lack of opportunities to advance, the meagre administrative support, or the working conditions. More than half of teachers who left teaching altogether reported being dissatisfied, as did an even higher share of teachers (66%) who switched to another job in education. This might mean solving the teacher-turnover crisis is about more than money.