OpinionUnion Report

Analysis: Teacher Turnover Is High — Except When You Compare Teaching to Other Professions

By Mike Antonucci | October 18, 2017

(Photo credit: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images)

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“They came on in the same old way,” the Duke of Wellington said of the French attacks at Waterloo, “and we saw them off in the same old way.”

I was reminded of this line after reading yet another report by the Learning Policy Institute to frighten us into thinking the U.S. has high teacher turnover rates. Its foray into this territory last year was rebuffed by the elementary methods of a) looking at the numbers and b) comparing them with those of all other professions. Lo and behold, public education employees quit their jobs at a lower rate than virtually any other profession in the United States.

Not to be deterred, this year LPI insists once more that teacher turnover rates are dangerously high, despite the best efforts of organizations like the National Council on Teacher Quality to refute those claims. LPI says “policymakers should pursue strategies that can improve teacher retention in all schools.” What strategies? Higher pay, smaller class sizes, and greater investments in education.

This is an unusual dispute, in that both sides agree on what the rate is. Data from both the federal labor and education departments put the attrition rate — that is, the percentage of employees who leave teaching — at about 8 percent. LPI would prefer it to be around 3–4 percent, the rate it finds in Finland and Singapore.

Rather than go far afield, it seems sufficient to say that comparing the labor economics of the United States with those of two countries whose combined populations are less than that of Ohio is problematic.

But if you want to compare attrition rates, suppose we look at employers who most certainly pay well, have excellent benefit packages, and have enlightened attitudes about working conditions and employee well-being: the two national teachers unions.

I examined the list of employees for both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers in Department of Labor filings for the most recent two years. Of 539 NEA employees, 52 were gone the next year (9.65%). Of 386 AFT employees, 46 were gone (11.9%).

Those are great rates of retention, but the public school teacher retention rate is better still.

That is not to say that teachers everywhere are, or ought to be, happy with their jobs. Just as we have seen with the teacher shortage issue, teacher retention is not a national problem with the generic solutions LPI provides. In some places higher pay would make a difference; in others, smaller class sizes. There are some places that could benefit from more turnover to make jobs available for a new generation of teachers and/or teachers of color.

Nevertheless, when the 2018–19 school year begins, I expect Learning Policy Institute shortage and turnover studies will come on in the same old way. God willing, I will still be here to see them off in the same old way.

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