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Teacher Exits—The Devil’s in the Details

The April NEA Today cover story focuses on how lack of respect, NCLB mandates, and underfunding are driving teachers from the profession. Determining definitively just how many teachers that is has proven tricky for researchers and they don’t always agree.

In the story, we highlight that the National Center for Education Statistics puts the average annual turnover for all teachers at 17 percent and at 20 percent for urban school districts. We also point out that the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future estimates that one-third of all new teachers leave after three years, and 46 percent are gone within five years. That last number is cited frequently, but it’s also often notched up to “nearly 50 percent” or “50 percent,” says the University of Pennsylvania ’s Richard Ingersoll, whose research generated the figure.

“Those are rough estimates,” says Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology. “The devil’s in the details.” But between 2002 (when the commission released its report using Ingersoll’s numbers) and 2006 (when he recalculated them based on the most recent national Schools and Staffing Survey) they haven’t changed with any significance.

Critics of the 46 percent statistic typically point to research done by others in the field who use a different approach and come up with a lower number. They don’t count teachers who leave and then return years later to the profession. But Ingersoll says he approaches his statistical analysis from the perspective of an administrator who must evaluate staffing shortages on a year-to-year basis—not an academic with the luxury of a five-year look at the teaching pool landscape. “It’s not that one data set is wrong and one is right, it’s that they measure things slightly differently,” he says.

The end result is the same, though. Teachers are leaving in higher percentages than in previous decades and their departure through what researchers call the “revolving door” costs roughly $7 billion a year. [For more on the consequences of the departure and some of the solutions offered by NEA read “Why They Leave.”] “Those who want to argue it’s all been exaggerated sort of miss the point,” says Ingersoll. “Roughly a million of these people in this job are in transition every year and that has consequences for those running the show.”

As for Ingersoll? The controversy over the numbers has provided enough material for him to write a whole new research paper on the matter.

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