Issues Challenging Education CLOUDS AND SUN

Teacher Attrition:

Is Time Running Out?

Janice Croasmun


Donald Hampton


Suzannah Herrmann


Educational Leadership Program

School of Education

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The Issue: Teacher Attrition
In his 1997 State of the Union address, President Clinton challenged all Americans to make sure that there is a talented, dedicated, well prepared teacher in every classroom across the country. With the increasing complexity of today's technological society, it is imperative that our children have well-prepared teachers who know their subjects and know how to teach effectively. We must be able to recruit and hire qualified teachers and keep them in the profession.

What is being done about the potentially critical issue of teacher attrition? This problem has become one of national concern. United States Department of Education Secretary Richard Riley has called for a nationwide satellite teleconference to be held on April 17, 1997. The purpose of this conference is to solicit input regarding the preparation, selection and retention of teachers from citizens, policymakers and educators throughout the nation. States and local communities are also taking it upon themselves to address the problem; these efforts will be addressed in more detail later in this paper (Winters, 4/1/97).

Background of the issue

A note on teacher attrition

To comprehensively analyze the issue of teacher attrition, identifying and interpreting the complexities and subtleties of the definition becomes important. According to Boe, Bobbit and Cook (1993), teacher attrition is a component of teacher turnover (i.e., changes in teacher status from year to year). Teacher turnover may include teachers exiting the profession, but may also include teachers who change fields (i.e., special education to general education) or schools. The rates of attrition often depend on this definition. In this paper we explore attrition by looking at teachers exiting the teaching profession.

Previous research on teacher attrition

Since the 1970's and early 1980's, research shows teacher attrition to be a problem. Charters (1970), Mark and Anderson (1978), and Murnane (1981) recorded that 25% of all people with teaching certificates never begin teaching or leave teaching within a few years. Murnane noted that in the early l970's there was .33 probability that a first year teacher would leave, where as in the late 1960's the study predicted the leave rate at a .16 probability in the first three years. Mark and Anderson (1985) noted in their study of teacher survival rates in St. Louis that proportions of entering cohorts of teachers decrease over time. According to Heyns report of the follow up of the National Longitudinal Study of 1972, 25.2% completed teacher training programs but never entered teaching in elementary or secondary schools (Heyns, 1988).

Recent research on teacher attrition

According to the 1987-1988 Schools and Staffing Survey and 1988-1989 Teacher Follow-up Survey, the attrition rate for the teaching profession was 5.6% in the public schools and 12.7% in private schools. The rate at which public school teachers left general education changed insignificantly depending on the field of study (Bobbitt, Faupel, & Burns, 1991). According to the data from the same surveys, however, more teachers in special education exited the teaching profession than general education teachers: 7.9% of special education and 5.8% of general education teachers left (Boe et al., 1993). Data collected from 1990-1991 Schools and Staffing Survey and the 1992 Teacher Follow-up Survey estimated that 6.3% of teachers in special education and 5.6% of teachers in general education in public schools left the profession nationally (Boe, Cook, Bobbitt, & Weber, 1995). Data according to these surveys also note that the rates of attrition are similar to the late 1980's: 5.1% of teachers left the public schools and 12.3% of teachers left private schools (US Department of Education, 8/95). In North Carolina, according to the Raleigh, North Carolina News and Observer (Simmons, 6/5/96), more than a third of the state's teachers leave teaching by the end of their fifth year.

Significance of the problem

Why is teacher attrition such a critical issue? While some of the teacher shortage results from fewer college students entering the field, teacher attrition is the largest single factor determining demand for additional teachers in the United States (Condition of Education, 1995). According to the 1990-91 Schools and Staffing survey, the source of jobs from attrition in special education is 49.2%, and the source of jobs from attrition in general education is 75.8%, whereas transfers (teachers moving to different teaching jobs) do not affect the total annual demand for teachers, and expansion of the teaching force only accounts for 19.5% of available teaching jobs. In other words, teacher attrition is a considerable factor affecting the amount of hiring which takes place in schools (Boe et al., 1995).

Forces driving the issue

Many forces drive the issue of teacher attrition. In the following section, we will discuss six of those forces in greater detail.


Some teachers leave the profession because they are dissatisfied with their salaries. According the 1987-88 Teacher Follow-up Survey, 4.5% of public school teachers stated salary as a main reason for leaving the profession. In the private schools, 9.1% of private school teachers stated salary as a main reason for leaving the profession (Bobbitt et al., 1991). Theobald (1990) notes from his study that salaries are positively related to decisions to continue teaching in the same district. Even previous research suggests that salary provides a reason for teachers to change careers. According to Bloland's and Selby's (1980) review of the literature, salary appears to be an important factor in the career change of male educators, but not female educators.

Teachers leave for higher paying jobs in other professions. Although teachers' salaries have improved in recent years, they remain low compared to those of other similarly-educated workers. Overall, US teachers earn much less than other workers with the same amount of education and experience. In 1991, beginning teachers' salaries of $19,100 ranked above those of service workers, but below those of every other occupation held by recent college graduates, including clerical workers, technicians, and laborers. It was substantially below the $30,000 or more paid to beginning computer programmers, engineers, and health professionals(Fineman-Nemser, 1996).

An interesting note related to attrition is that discrepancies in teacher salary across districts and states can also account for teacher shortages. There are large inequalities across districts in teachers' salaries and teaching conditions. As a consequence, teacher shortages are common-especially in fields like math and science (although this contradicts the results at the national level stated above) where competing occupations offer more attractive opportunities, and in cities and other low-wealth districts where salaries and working conditions are not competitive. Teachers' salaries also vary greatly among states. For example, salaries in 1990-91 ranged from $20,354 in South Dakota to $43,326 in Connecticut. Even within a single labor market, there is often a margin of difference in teachers' salaries based on the wealth and spending choices of the various districts. Typically, teachers in affluent suburban districts earn more than those in central cities or more rural communities within the same area. These variations contribute to a surplus of qualified teachers in some locations and a shortage in others. These variations also influence teacher retention, especially new teachers. Those who are better paid tend to stay in teaching longer than those with lower salaries (Fineman-Nemser, 1996).

Level of education

In Bloland and Selby's review of earlier literature on teacher attrition (1980), educational attainment relates littlewith teacher mobility. Their conclusions agrees partially with the more recent research of Marso and Pigge (1995). In respect to the relationship between level of education and attrition, whether a teacher attended a two-year county teachers college or received a bachelor's degree is unrelated to contintuing teaching. However, teachers who completed graduate work or obtained a master's degree continued teacher longer than other teachers. One interpretation of this finding suggests that "professional" level of training in education produces a greater commitment to teaching resulting in a larger proportion continuing to work. Another interpretation is that these teachers left school more recently so that the attrition observed in the other educational categories had simply not yet had time to occur.

Marital status

Marital status is related more strongly to attrition from teaching than is any other variable on which data are available. Ninety percent of the unmarried teachers, but only 45.8% of the married teachers, were still working. Husband's occupation appears to have no association with the percentage of married teachers still working. This finding is somewhat surprising, because it is expected that women married to men in minor white-collar and blue-collar occupations work to provide supplementary income more often than those married to men in professional and higher status business occupations. One possibility is that not enough time had elapsed for this socioeconomic difference to emerge. In other words, women married to men in higher status business occupations may work temporarily while their husbands were recuperate from the financial strain of graduate or professional school or establishing a clientele or business (Marso & Pigge, 1995).

Other research and theories support this finding. Bloland and Selby (1980) note that the earlier research indicates that the preference of the spouse leaving or staying the teaching profession is one of the most important factors for staying in the field of education. Kirby and Grissmer (1993) theorize that the decision to accept and keep a teaching job depends on life cycle factors (existing family status and change in family status).

Increasing experience

According to Kirby and Grissmer (1993), the human capital approach offers some reasons for teacher attrition. In this model, the individual weighs costs and benefits. Teacher attrition tends to be higher during the early part of a teaching career because the teacher accumulates less specific capital (knowledge specific to occupation and that which is non-transferable). Teacher attrition tends to diminish later in the career because more specific capital exists. Theobald (1990) found similar data: decisions to continue teaching in the same district positively relate to experience.

Beginning teachers

First year teachers are 2.5 times more likely to leave the profession than their more experienced counterparts. An additional 15 % of beginning teachers will leave after their second year and still another 10% will leave after the third year. The turnover rate of new teachers does not settle at the overall rate of 6% until the fifth or sixth year. Of all beginning teachers who enter the profession, 40-50% will leave during the first seven years of their career, and in excess of two-thirds of those will do so in the first four years of teaching (Huling-Austin, 1986).

Many new teachers find that they are unprepared for the reality of the classroom. Henry (1986) found that beginning teachers leave the teaching field is the inability to cope with teaching problems. Discipline, difficulties with parents, and lack of sufficient or appropriate teaching materials are among the problems experienced by beginning teachers. In addition, beginners are often given the most difficult teaching assignments. Once they leave the university setting, novice teachers often receive little or no support and find that their teacher education programs ill-prepared them for the realities of teaching. In fact, Page, Page, and Million (1983) have identified a relationship between beginning teachers' self-assessment of the quality of their preparation programs and their plans to stay in teaching. University graduates who are satisfied with their teacher preparation programs are more likely to stay in teaching.

One reason so many new teachers leave is that teaching, as a profession, has been slow to develop a systematic way to induct beginners gradually into the complexities of a job that demands hundreds of management decisions every day. Terms like intern and trainee are used in other professions to identify a beginner who has received training in the profession and who earns a stipend by participation in limited experiences under expert supervision. In the teaching profession, these terms are often used differently. Interns and trainees have full teaching responsibilities, without prior professional training; they must also attend classes in their spare time and often have limited expert supervision (Shulman & Colbert, 1989). If we want to retain new teachers, particularly those teaching in inner-city schools, we must introduce them to the profession humanely, in ways that engender self-esteem, competence, collegiality, and professional stature.

Another possible factor involved in the higher attrition rate for beginning teachers is the initial level of commitment to the teaching profession. Some prospective teachers enter the profession with a positive attraction for teaching and plan to make it a long-term career. Others enter the profession with the intent of staying only a few years and plan to quit working altogether, or to use the skills gained from their education to pursue interests in other fields (Yee, 1990).

Special education teachers

According to the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) teacher attrition in special education is one of the most troublesome issues facing public schools (NASDSE, 1990). Special education teachers leave the profession at higher rates than general education teachers. In fact, only bilingual education has a greater personnel shortage than special education. The number of school-age children needing special education services continues to increase (US Department of Education, 1990) while the number of graduates receiving bachelor's degrees in special education is declining (NASDSE, 1990).

Among specific groups of special educators, attrition rates are particularly high for teachers of students with emotional and behavioral disorders. After studying career intentions of 96 teachers of students with emotional and behavioral disorders, George et al.(1995) reported that 36.5% of the sample planned to leave the field within the next year, and an additional 10.4% were unsure about their future career plans.

Implications for Education

Anticipated teacher shortages

Recurring shortages of teachers have characterized the US labor market most of the twentieth century, with the exception of a brief period of declining student enrollments during the late 1970s and the early 80s. Currently, shortages are most pronounced in areas like bilingual education, special education, physics, chemistry, mathematics, and computer science, cities, and in growing regions of the country, such as the West and the South.

This has been a persistent problem. In 1991, nearly 10% of all teachers and one fourth of new teachers lacked a license in their field; however, the proportions were more than twice that in central cities. In New York City, for example, 2,600 of the 4,500 teachers in 1992 were unlicensed. In fact, over 50,000 non-certified individuals enter teaching annually in the United States (Darling-Hammond, 1990). Today, there are still many non-certified teachers who have little or no formal preparation in child development, learning styles or teaching methods.

In 1985, Hidalgo predicted that teacher shortages would continue through the year 2000 and would in fact worsen due to high retirement rates, enforced curriculum requirements, shifting urban demographics, expanded career opportunities for women and minorities, and increasingly rigorous teacher credentials. So far these predictions have proven accurate, and the turn of the century will find us still dealing with this problem.

Shortages are particularly common in urban areas. According to a report released last year by Recruiting New Teachers, Inc. and the Council of the Great City Schools in Washington, DC, the lack of qualified teachers in inner-city schools has forced more than two-thirds of these districts to hire uncertified personnel. The most severe urban teacher shortages are in the areas of special education, science, math and bilingual education (Urban Educator, 1996). According to Haberman (1987), the average career of an urban teacher is between three and five years and in every five year period, approximately one-half of the urban teaching force leaves the profession. As a result, there is a teacher shortage in the nation's 120 largest urban school districts. The lack of specific teacher education programs tailored especially for urban teachers have contributed to this high rate of urban teaching attrition.

Other implications

Researchers in their justification for their studies have asserted a variety of reasons for the importance of the impact of teacher attrition on education. One implication noted is the cost to districts attributed to teacher attrition. Adams and Deal (1993) note that districts investing in potential teachers informally or formally through recruiting, training, and mentoring incur a loss when a teacher leaves the district. Theobald (1990) suggests a similar implication: that teacher turnover burdens school districts with added recruiting and hiring costs. Concern over student and school performance also pushes this issue forward. High rates of teacher turnover are disruptive to program continuity and planning (Theobald, 1990). High levels of teacher turnover create significant decreases in student performance(Bempah, et al., 1994 ). Higher rates of teacher attrition also may indicate underlying problems and disrupt the effectiveness of schools (Ingersoll & Rossi, 1995). For example, according to the Washington Post, schools in the Washington DC area are having difficulty finding substitute teachers to fill in for teacher absences. In fact, in one nearby Virginia school district, classes have had to be combined and older students have been called on to supervise the younger students (Wee, 1/27/97).

Where is the issue going?

Mentor programs

Most reforms currently focus on supporting and developing skills in beginning teachers. Orange County, California has developed a Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment Program designed to provide organized support and assistance to first year teachers, helping them develop skills critical for success in the profession (UCI Dept. of Education, 1994). Each participating teacher is paired with an experienced Support Provider. All participants receive release time for collaboration, instructional materials, a monetary stipend, and the opportunity for academic credit from a local university. A school district in Brainerd, Minnesota, in conjunction with Bemidji State University, has developed The Beginning Teacher Support System. The Brainerd Daily Dispatch reports that the BTSS is a three year model aimed at improving the performance and effectiveness of beginning teachers (Kringen, 2/10/97). First year teachers are provided with an experienced mentor. The beginning teachers are also given monthly inservice training, seminars, and in-class performance assessments. Teachers remain in the program for three years, and are assisted in developing an individualized plan to set goals for their next ten years in the profession.

Corporate support

AT&T (1991) has aimed a $3 million initiative at improving beginning teacher preparation in three inner cities in order to reduce attrition rates. The program provides three cities, New York, Jacksonville and San Francisco, with grants of $400,000 each designed to bring together local universities, school systems and teacher unions in developing new beginning teacher programs. AT&T hopes that the program will result in an increase in well-prepared beginning teachers and reduced teacher attrition rates.

Use of communication technology

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's School of Education has developed The Lighthouse Project, aimed at providing additional support for beginning teachers (Stancill, 2/12/97). The program gives beginning teachers laptop computers and free access to the Internet. The goal is to provide new teachers with professional support through on-line access to teaching support groups, master teachers from other schools, and members of the university education faculty.

More money

In another initiative, aimed at reaching all North Carolina teachers, Governor Jim Hunt has promised to raise state teacher pay to the national average by the year 2000 (Fine, 2/17/97). The plan would provide greater pay increases to teachers with earned master's degrees, national board certified teachers, and mentor teachers.

Improved recruitment of teachers

Entry into the profession and retention are basic to placing good teachers in America's classrooms. Nationally, nearly 1,300 institutions of higher education and a number of alternative programs commit substantial resources to the preparation of teachers. Today nearly 40% of the resources devoted to teacher preparation are used on individuals who never enter teaching and an additional 30% are used on individuals who teach fewer than five years. If these scarce resources were applied to the preparation of good candidates who enter the profession and remain in teaching more than a few years, we could expect a significant improvement in the quality of teacher preparation (Andrew & Schwab, 1995).

Since the 1980s, the attraction to teaching has improved somewhat, with salary increases closing some of the gap between teaching and other occupations, and returning teachers to the wage level they had received before a decade of decline in real salaries. This has helped propel increases in teacher supply and quality. In contrast to the 1980s, current teacher education students have better academic records than most other college students. With current rates of increase in supply, we might optimistically expect the number of newly prepared teachers to soon reach 150,000 annually for the more than 200,000 openings to be filled. Future trends will be determined by currently unmade policy choices that affect the desirability of teaching. Obviously, teaching vacancies are, and will continue to be, filled from other sources. Both attracting and retaining qualified teachers at higher rates will be essential to school quality.

Alternative certification programs

To address the problem of a shrinking pool of education graduates, many teacher education programs have begun to recruit new teachers by developing an alternative route to teacher certification. By its very nature, an alternative teacher certification program will attract a different population of participants than traditional programs (Smith, Nystrand, Ruch, Gideonse & Carlson, 1985). Most candidates in an alternative programs are older than those in a traditional program and by and large most already have earned college degrees. In some alternative programs, participants will have been selected as being more "academically talented" than their counterparts in traditional programs. These various differences may present both advantages and disadvantages.

On the positive side, older candidates tend to bring with them more life experiences and greater maturity which will benefit them as teachers. Also, persons who have already earned their college degrees are more likely to be more focused on learning to teach than their undergraduate counterparts who often must "fit in" their education course requirements along with the many other requirements necessary to complete their degrees (Huling-Austin, 1986).

On the negative side, there is reason to speculate that teachers entering the profession through alternative routes may leave in even greater numbers than their regularly certified counterparts. These reasons include less preparation for dealing with demands and realities of the public schools, less formal training in teaching prior to entering the classroom and a greater likelihood of being placed in teaching situations that are more difficult. There is also evidence to indicate that those teachers who are the most academically talented leave in the greatest numbers (Schlechty & Vance, 1983). Therefore, certification programs catering to the more academically able may have additional reason for concern about retention rates.

If the ultimate goal of alternative certification programs is to supply the public schools with additional qualified teachers, it will not be enough to simply look at the numbers of persons entering the profession through such programs. If large numbers of teachers bail out in their first years of teaching, the impact of alternative certification programs will be seriously diminished. The retention of alternatively certified teachers in the profession will be a key factor in determining the ultimate success of the original goal- to supply the nation's schools with additional teachers (Huling-Austin, 1986).

These are examples of current efforts to address the issue of teacher attrition. But is extra support enough? Teachers' working conditions are still less than ideal. Teaching during actual school hours consists mostly of instructing classrooms of students. Other teaching duties such as planning, grading papers, working with colleagues, conferencing with parent and/or students and working with curriculum and assessment are usually not part of the regular working day and must be attended to outside of school hours. No other nation requires teachers to teach more hours per week than the United States (National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, 1996). Until working conditions improve, the United States is likely to continue to face a teacher attrition crisis.

What educational leaders should do to prepare for the future

New programs and improved training of teachers

Since there is a connection between teachers' feelings of efficacy and teacher burnout and attrition, teacher education programs and staff development must make changes to help insure that the teachers they are training will be successful in the classroom. Currently, approaches to licensure and accreditation are being reconsidered, and a new National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is beginning to offer recognition to highly accomplished teachers who can teach all learners. Policy makers and educators increasingly recognize that there is a correlation between the capacities teachers need to be effective in the 21st century and major restructuring of the systems by which states and school districts license, hire, induct, support, and provide for continual learning of teachers. The recently enacted federal Goals 2000: Educate America Act links new standards for students to much expanded professional development for teachers. States and districts are beginning to rethink how teachers' work is structured in schools, so that they have more time to collaborate with other teachers, research interests, and reflect on teaching practice and student achievement. The philosophy is that more knowledgeable and professionally developed teachers are able to better serve their students.

A teacher education program that illustrates this philosophy and has shown promise in graduating new teachers who will be less likely to leave the profession is the Alliance Project's Clinical Continuum at the University of Florida. It is designed to provide freshmen and sophomores with opportunities to experience the culture of teaching and schools early in their program, to observe and document the sometimes conflicting roles teachers assume, and to begin the transition from the role of student to that of teacher. These early field experiences focus on four themes: 1) multiple and diverse field placements in a variety of settings and levels; 2) observation and analysis of teaching and the schools using appropriate observational tools; 3) the use of targeted instructional activities and materials to guide the examination of teaching form the perspective of personal beliefs, values, and attitudes; 4) the initiation of a professional portfolio (Marquardt, 1994).

Another approach to lessen teacher attrition through better teacher preparation is to lengthen the time it takes to complete teacher preparation programs. Graduates of extended teacher education programs enter at significantly higher rates and show higher rates of retention than do graduates of four-year programs (Andrew & Schwab, 1995). Regardless of individual program variation, students choosing an extended teacher education program that requires at least a year of post-baccalaureate study are more committed to teaching than some of their four-year program counterparts. It is also logical to conclude that because of the extended internship and generally higher academic standards, graduates are better prepared to succeed as beginning teachers. Self-reported feelings of greater confidence as a teacher and a more positive attitude toward teacher education programs by extended program graduates support the conclusion that graduates of those programs are better prepared, or at least have more confidence in their preparation. These factors likely contribute to higher retention rates.

To reduce the attrition rate of teachers placed in urban settings, two changes must occur. First, teachers must be better prepared for the challenges faced in urban classrooms. Secondly, urban schools must be transformed into learning communities where ongoing inquiry, learning, and assessment routinely occurs, where intellectual activity is valued and rewarded, where "best practices" are modeled and refined, and where educators are encouraged and supported in their efforts to transform teaching and learning processes. Both are long term propositions (Marquardt, 1994).

These efforts to improve teaching and teacher preparation have thus far been isolated and piecemeal, and have not yet been developed as a plan linked to other school reform efforts and integrated across the various stages of the teaching career-from initial recruitment and preparation to induction and ongoing professional development to the demonstration of sharing of highly accomplished practice among expert teachers. Development of such a coherent plan should take into account the current status of teaching and teacher development and the possibilities for fundamentally different approaches and outcomes. It must also consider the issues of how to recruit and retain an adequate supply of well-prepared teachers. Such a plan should seek to restructure and reculture both teacher preparation programs and the public schools (Marquardt, 1994).

Support for new teachers

In the first years of teaching, only the strongest and most determined survive, and all too often these are not the most creative and talented teachers. Some of the most talented find teaching "frustrating, unrewarding, and intolerably difficult" (Colbert & Wolff, 1992). Beginning teachers in difficult schools often feel like failures.

The assistance and support provided to candidates during their induction years critically contribute and directly influence on the short term retention of new teachers (Huling-Austin, 1986). Several teacher preparation programs have formed collaborations with local school districts. One such program used cooperative team planning as a method of systematic support for its new teachers (Colbert & Wolff, 1992) In this model, professors assist in the building of cooperative teams of new teachers who offer each other technical and emotional support.

Texas A & M -Corpus Christi began an Induction Year Program designed to provide support and instruction to first-year teachers while starting them toward master's level professional development. The nine hour program focuses on practical strategies for teaching success such as classroom management, communication skills, and discipline. Also, faculty members regularly visit the classes of program participants to observe and provide constructive evaluation of the teachers performance.

Research on beginning teachers conducted at the Research and Development Center for Teacher Education at The University of Texas at Austin has resulted in a number of findings which have implications for mentoring programs for new teachers:

1) teaching assignment highly influence first year teacher success; 2) the assignment of an appropriate on-site support teacher acts as the most powerful and cost-effective intervention in a beginning teacher program.; 3) beginning teacher programs should flexible to accommodate the needs of participants; and 4) a beginning teacher program addresses and resolves the needs of program participants, as well as arouse positive concerns (Huling-Austin, 1986).

It is important to train administrators and experienced teachers in classroom observation and peer coaching strategies (Colbert & Wolff, 1992). The design and implementation of this training should be a collaborative effort between school districts and university schools of education. A potential pitfall is a lack of support at the school level. Frequently, schools with the largest number of beginning teachers have the fewest number of experienced teachers. Too often these experienced teachers are burdened with so many responsibilities they are unwilling or unable to take on the additional workload necessary to support and assist beginning teachers. This problem can be addressed by insuring that beginning teachers attend university classes and in-service workshops regularly and are encouraged to work together to provide emotional and professional support to each other if support form experienced teachers is not available.

Creative and flexible scheduling is necessary to provide released time to peer coaches and beginners. This will provide opportunities for them to build trusting relationships that can contribute to increased career satisfaction and retention of beginning teachers.


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