According to a draft report posted this morning, the teacher turnover rate for the state’s 115 school districts increased by 0.7 percent last year to 14.84 percent. All data are self-reported by school districts and are collected by NC Department of Public Instruction staff in March of each school year. The rate includes teachers who retired, resigned to teach in another North Carolina public school, or resigned due to personal circumstances.
No report is more controversial, misunderstood, and misread than the Annual Report on Teachers Leaving the Profession.
It is controversial because media, politicians, and advocacy organizations argue that attrition rates are a direct reflection of the majority party’s treatment of teachers. The truth is that teacher recruitment and retention is a complex phenomenon that often centers more on personal circumstances than statewide policies.
It is misunderstood because only a fraction of those counted as "turnover" actually make a conscious choice to leave the teaching profession. Employers in the private and nonprofit sectors would not necessarily categorize lateral moves or the expiration of a time-limited/temporary employment contract as turnover. Yet, both are included in North Carolina’s annual turnover calculation.
It is misread because many assume that all attrition is bad. In fact, we want the bad teachers to leave in large numbers and as quickly as possible. Because we do not know how many of these individuals were not cut out for the demands of teaching, lawmakers overwhelmingly passed SB 33/ SL2015-126, which will require greater detail about the performance of those who leave the profession.
As such, an honest discussion or objective evaluation of North Carolina’s reported turnover rate requires sufficient care and context.
The 2014-15 attrition rate was 14.84 percent or 0.7 percent higher than a year earlier. The most recent attrition rate reported by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which includes both leavers and movers, was 15.8 percent. Unfortunately, the NCES definition of turnover is not perfectly aligned to North Carolina’s, so comparisons to the national rate require caution and qualification.
Since 2011, the top three self-reported reasons for turnover remained the same — 1) teach in another NC public school system, 2) retire with full benefits, and 3) family relocation. There has been a notable rise, however, in the number of teachers who resign to teach in another state. The number of "grass is greener" teachers increased by nearly 300 over the last two school years, likely the result of aggressive recruiting efforts by fast-growing school districts in the South.
Of the 14,256 teachers who left in 2014-15, nearly 4,300 of them resigned to teach in another public school or moved to a non-teaching position in education. Over 2,200 retired with partial or full benefits. Another 2,500 resigned to tackle family responsibilities and/or childcare, to relocate with their families, or to address health concerns.
All told, only around 2,200 teachers — approximately 2.3 percent of the total teaching force — resigned to teach in another state, to change careers, or because they were dissatisfied with teaching.
School districts continue to report problems recruiting and retaining math, science, and special education teachers. Given that these teachers possess knowledge and skills that are attractive to employers in the private and nonprofit sectors (not to mention out-of-state school districts), it would be sensible for state legislators to provide financial incentives or boost the base pay of teachers certified in these areas.
Finally, it is worth noting that there was an uptick in turnover among large school districts in the Triangle and Triad. It is not clear why. Perhaps improving economic conditions in these districts are drawing teachers away from the profession. On the other hand, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools enjoyed a nearly 5.5 percent drop in turnover last year. What is Charlotte-Mecklenburg doing that others are not?
My advice is to ignore the inevitable spin and consider the teacher attrition rate as one of many imperfect indicators of a notoriously capricious profession.
Note: Table 12: Five-Year Average LEA Turnover (pp. 36-38) in the draft 2014-2015 Annual Report on Teachers Leaving the Profession appears to contain multiple errors. I used Table 12 as my source for district/regional turnover rates, so please disregard any mention of those rates above.
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"As reflected in the chart on page 6, teachers reported "personal reasons" as the main reason for their decision to leave the profession this year (2014-2015). "Personal reasons" includes individuals retiring with reduced benefits, individuals resigning to teach in another state, individuals dissatisfied with teaching, and family relocation. Family relocation was largely the reason most reported in this category this year (a total of 1,547 teachers). Over the past three years (2012-2013, 2013-2014, and 2014-2015), over 30% of teachers were reported as "turnover but remained in education," which means they remained in the profession (teaching), however, have shifted from LEA to LEA within the state, teaching in public charter schools or moving to non-teaching positions in education (administrative roles, coaches, instructional facilitators, etc.)."
— NC State Board of Education Department of Public Instruction, "2014-2015 Annual Report on Teachers Leaving the Profession," p. 5
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