Everyone can tell you about a teacher who was caring, knowledgeable, and inspiring. Most of us know from personal experience that being certified to teach is no guarantee that a teacher will do a good job with children, just as being licensed to practice medicine is not a complete assurance of quality patient care.
And yet, being certified to teach means something. At a minimum, it guarantees that the individual has been responsible for her own classroom, even if only for a few months under the supervision of a more senior teacher. It means that a teacher recently certified has passed a series of state tests of academic skills, content knowledge, and understanding of how children learn. She also probably has had some experience in diagnosing and teaching children with learning disabilities. Changes in certification requirements mandate that newly certified teachers be more academically skilled than ever before. Some states increased the number of required hours of liberal arts coursework in mathematics and English for prospective teachers, mandated a 3.0 grade-point average for entry into and exit from a teacher education program, and raised the minimum passing scores on many certification tests with highest standards for teaching certification.
Our analysis of data indicates that 93 percent of the English teachers were certified to teach, as were 95 percent of the social studies teachers, 87 percent of the math teachers, and 83 percent of the science teachers. The great majority of the certified teachers were teaching in their field; that is, they were teaching a subject for which they had taken content-area courses and passed the state licensure test. Out-of-field teaching among certified teachers was most common in science, where, for example, a certified biology teacher might be called upon to teach a course in chemistry or physics.
Of more concern is the large number of emergency-certified teachers who may have little college preparation for the subject they are teaching. Since the emergency-certified test takers are a self-selected group, we do not know how their academic skills compare to those who left the district without taking the test. Nevertheless, the data make clear that students have not been able to count on getting a teacher who has mastered basic academic skills. In addition, the low pass rates of emergency-certified teachers have contributed to high staff turnover, since those who can not pass the exam within a few years lose their teaching positions in the district. Finding ways to retain good teachers is another important task in providing students with a quality education.
High Attrition, Unstable Staffing and Recurring Vacancies
Some turnover is often desirable in the workplace, since new hires can bring fresh energy and ideas. However, there are a number of reasons why any school district should pay attention to its teacher turnover rate. At the most basic level, there are costs to a school district associated with recruiting and hiring teachers. In addition, schools receive a reduced return on their investment in professional development when teachers leave the district. Teachers also take away with them vital information about the students in their classes, knowledge that could have helped students’ future teachers determine placement and solve behavior problems. We differentiate those who depart the profession entirely from those who remain in teaching but switch to a different school. With these two categories combined, high-poverty public schools nationally have higher annual rates of teacher turnover (15 percent) than low-poverty schools (8 percent).
Each year, some teachers leave the district entirely; we call this “district-level turnover.” In addition, many teachers remain in the district but transfer to a new school. High levels of turnover at individual schools impede the development of a coherent educational program, institutional memory, and staff cohesion.
In recent years, the US has relied on emergency-certified teachers to fill hiring gaps, virtually guaranteeing a high level of new teacher turnover. Historically, emergency-certified teachers have been allowed to enter the classrooms with no prior training, not even a short summer course, and with college majors that were not always related to the subjects they were assigned to teach. Our data show that departure rates for emergency-certified teachers have been higher than for certified teachers; 42 percent of the emergency certified newcomers hired remained in the district three years later, in contrast to 51 percent of the new certified teachers.
Although emergency-certified teachers are more likely to leave the district, there is clearly substantial attrition among the new teachers who are certified. Some new teachers discover that they are not cut out to be in a classroom and decide to leave the profession after a few months or years. Others leave for more appealing jobs in suburban schools. A certain amount of departure from teaching is to be expected, since not everyone has the temperament, commitment, or academic skills to be a good teacher. But the high attrition rates for new teachers across the country suggest that either enormous numbers of new teachers have seriously misjudged their occupational skills and interests – which is unlikely – or something else is driving them from their first jobs.
Research conducted nationally attributes the high attrition rate of new teachers to dissatisfaction with compensation, working conditions, student discipline, and the leadership in their school buildings. High-poverty urban schools are especially prone to these problems. Data show that among new teachers who leave the profession after just one year because they were dissatisfied, more than three-fourths (76 percent) cite “poor salary” as the reason.
From a recruiting standpoint, district-level turnover is more relevant than school level turnover. But individual schools are affected by both departures from the district and transfers within the district. School-level turnover rates are higher than system-wide rates because schools suffer losses from those who depart the profession, leave the school system, or transfer to another school in the same district.
It is important to keep in mind that almost every public school enrolls a high proportion of low-income students. More than 21 percent of the teachers at schools with 90 percent or more low-income students had left their schools by the following year. Fifty-six percent of the teachers at these schools remained three years later. National data show a similar pattern of higher teacher turnover at schools with more low-income students. The disproportionate number of new teachers in the highest-poverty schools contributes to the high turnover rate, since new teachers are more likely to leave than veterans.