Projections about a mass teacher exodus in North Carolina sparked by Republican legislative policies not only have failed to materialize, but also turnover rates declined last year, according to an annual report issued by the state Department of Public Instruction.
Meanwhile, despite claims from Democratic lawmakers, public-school advocacy groups, and left-of-center organizations that job dissatisfaction is leading to teacher flight from the classroom, turnover rates in education services remain far below levels in many industries, according to federal data measurements.
The 2013-14 Annual Report on Teachers Leaving the Profession submitted in December to the General Assembly shows that 13,557 out of the 96,010 teachers employed during the 2013-2014 school year left their school districts, an overall state turnover rate of 14.12 percent.
“This represents a decrease in the state’s overall turnover rate, as reported for the 2012-2013 school year at 14.33 percent,” the report said.
“I’ve looked at attrition rates in other states … and 14 percent doesn’t look all that different than what you see in other states,” said Dan Goldhaber, an economist who is director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington and has researched North Carolina teacher turnover.
But Rodney Ellis, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, downplayed the DPI turnover report.
“If in fact it reflects a reduction in the teacher turnover rate, I think that’s good for schools. However, I would question whether or not it’s an accurate depiction,” he said. The report runs from March of one year to March of the next, so Ellis said it does not capture “the recent rash of teachers that have been recruited to other states.”
Ellis previously said it is “disconcerting that we are losing good, quality, experienced teachers that have been trained in our state,” and blamed the General Assembly for not making public education a priority, a situation he said demands change.
DPI does not do a supplemental check of teacher turnover after March and cannot say whether there was a sudden out-of-state flight of teachers in the final two months of the 2013-14 school year, spokeswoman Vanessa Jeter said.
“I think that the way policy makers tend to debate this is very crude, and not terribly helpful for improving public education,” Goldhaber said. “Is turnover high or low is not the right question. You really care about the kinds of teachers that are turning over.”
If there is high turnover but most of the teachers leaving are ineffective, that would be a good thing, he said. If there is low turnover, but the bulk of those leaving are effective teachers, that would be a concern.
When he researched North Carolina turnover several years ago, his data revealed “the more effective teachers were actually less likely to leave the profession,” Goldhaber said.
While the 2013-14 DPI turnover report found 37.6 percent of the teachers who reported leaving their jobs had career status, Goldhaber cautioned that tenure and effectiveness are “absolutely not synonymous. … There are lots of really effective first-year teachers, and lots of really ineffective 20-year teachers.”
Further, he said, teaching comprises greater proportions of “really young” and “pretty old” people than other professions.
So if the attrition rate is 14 percent but many of those leaving were in their mid-30s to mid-40s, “I would say ‘Wow, that actually sounds pretty high,” Goldhaber said. But if the turnover occurred at the two age extremes, “I would say, ‘Oh, 14 percent, that’s actually pretty low.”
The teacher survey on which the DPI turnover report is based includes 28 self-reported reasons filed into five categories, but does not drill down into teacher effectiveness or age demographics.
“The teacher turnover survey instrument used by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction provides the 10,000-foot-view of the issue. We still have little idea why teachers choose to leave their current school or the profession entirely,” said Terry Stoops, director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation.
Teachers may leave their jobs for any number of reasons, including working conditions, family circumstances, and compensation, he said, and those who fail to appreciate the multiple facets of employee turnover are using the numbers “for political gain.”
“There is simply no evidence that teachers are leaving the profession as a direct result of North Carolina Republican policies. While a handful of teachers voiced their displeasure with the direction of public education in the state, most quietly moved on to jobs that better meet their expectations and abilities,” Stoops said.
Consistent with past reports, the largest portion of what the state defines as turnover “is simply the movement of teachers from one school district to another,” Stoops said. That accounted for 2,730 teacher turnovers.
Another 1,363 resigned to teach in charter and private schools or remained in education but moved to a nonteaching position. School districts initiated 1,122 teacher removals, and another 2,353 were attributed to situations beyond the school districts’ control, the vast majority of them retirements.
Of 5,030 teachers who quit for personal reasons, only 1,745 teachers left to either teach in another state (734), or due to unspecified dissatisfaction with teaching (1,011). Those categories were up from 2012-13, when 455 left to teach in another state and 887 said they were dissatisfied with teaching.
“Survey data is great for what it is,” Goldhaber said, but “economists are somewhat skeptical of using what people say. They care more about what they actually do, and sometimes what you say [on surveys] is not always what you do.”
Sandi Jacobs, vice president and managing director for state policy at the National Council on Teacher Quality, agrees, and said the education industry has “very poor capabilities” of tracking teachers crossing state lines.
“Most of our evidence does rely on exit interviews or multiple choice surveys that barely crack the surface of why people are leaving,” Jacobs said. “They may very well be relocating for family reasons, but they were dissatisfied so they checked dissatisfaction.”
Modern lifestyles, and colleges pumping out ill-prepared teachers also play a part in teacher departures.
“The 21st century work force is just different than the 20th century work force. People are increasingly more mobile than they used to be,” and are less likely to envision themselves starting and ending their careers in the same place, Jacobs said.
“I think we know that a lot of teachers leave very early in their career. With one, two, or three years in they decide this isn’t for me,” Jacobs said. That indicates teacher preparation at education colleges and licensure requirements in the states allow people into the field “who might be under qualified, and then let them wash out on their own,” to the detriment of students.
There are no annual research reports that compare teacher turnover to turnover in other professions, so it is impossible to determine how North Carolina’s 14.12 percent teacher turnover rate stacks up to other job fields.
But the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics conducts an annual Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey in which employee separations by industry are tracked nationally. It does not distill individual professions, but shows education overall as one of the most stable industries.
The most recent report for 2013 shows that 26.1 percent of employees in education services left their jobs. Education services encompasses much more than classroom teaching, comprising “all occupations of privately owned and operated for profit or not for profit establishments such as schools, colleges, universities, and training centers,” according to the report.
The only industries with lower turnover rates were government (16 percent), durable goods manufacturing (21.9), wholesale trade (23.5), nondurable goods manufacturing (25.6), and finance and insurance (25.9). There were 12 industries with higher turnover rates, including arts, entertainment, and recreation (72.4 percent); accommodation and food services (62.6)’ construction (62.5); professional and business services (56.4); retail trade (49.2); and health care and social assistance (29.4).
Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.
Editor’s note: This story was edited after initial publication to include a comment from Vanessa Jeter of DPI.