Between 2009 and 2014 the enrollment in teacher education programs dropped from 691,00 to 451,000, a 35% reduction. That’s a pretty shocking number. Fewer young people are interested in becoming teachers, and that’s a problem because school enrollment is projected to increase by roughly three million students in the next decade. While those numbers are reason enough to cause alarm, there is another statistic that caught my eye recently. Estimates are that nearly 8% of the teaching workforce leaves the profession annually, the vast majority leaving before retirement age. The Learning Policy Institute put out a study that looks at the looming crisis of teacher supply and demand and it is illuminating.
While there is a lot in the LPI study that should cause concern, the data about teacher retention is the most troubling to me. It really shouldn’t be that shocking. Those of us who are in education see it all the time; great teachers are leaving our profession. Studies are showing that while salary is one component of why teachers leave the profession, it is not the most significant factor. Ultimately, many teachers leave teaching because they don’t feel supported and they don’t feel as though their voices are being heard.
The effects of teacher attrition are significant. Having a great teacher in every classroom is at the heart of student learning. Every study on great schools tells us that the single most important factor in student achievement is having a great teacher in front of the classroom. For that reason alone we should be focusing energy on teacher retention, but there is more. Professor Richard Ingersoll from the University of Pennsylvania puts the cost of teacher attrition nationally at around $2.2 billion a year. It is also worth noting that attrition is much higher among minority teachers and those who teach in high-poverty settings.
If we are going to retain great teachers, we need to recognize why teachers are leaving and do something about it. What is notable about the data available around teacher retention is that it has very little to do with salaries. First of all, it would be silly to think that better teacher salaries wouldn’t attract smart young people to the profession and that better teacher salaries wouldn’t retain more great teachers. Those “education reformers” who believe teachers are overpaid and that holding down salaries and taking away benefits from teachers will somehow make schools better are wrong. But, the data tells us that retaining teachers is actually about how well supported teachers feel in their classrooms. Teacher retention statistics won’t change until we empower the teaching profession in new ways.
A key component of retaining teachers needs to happen at the moment we bring new teachers into our profession. Schools across the country are recognizing the importance of powerful teacher induction programs. It is important that we provide our new teachers with the professional learning and resources necessary to be successful. Most importantly we need to provide our young teachers with mentors to support them. I started teaching in a time when mentorship wasn’t so much an educational buzzword as it was an informal courtesy that great teachers engaged in with young colleagues. I will never forget when a legendary Iowa music teacher by the name of Paul Brizzi took me aside at an event when I was a young teacher and told me that he could see something special in me as a teacher. That act of kindness, and the subsequent years of support by Paul and many others like him, changed my teaching and impacted students in my classroom in ways that can’t be measured. Supporting our young teachers is critical to retention, but we must also support veteran teachers who make up the bulk of the teacher workforce.
Teachers who are leaving the profession are telling us in no uncertain terms that they want to feel supported by their schools and that they want to feel as though they have autonomy to do what is right for the students they work with each and every day. Teachers also want to know that their voices are being heard. At the moment, I think teachers would tell you that they don’t feel heard. Sometimes they don’t feel heard in their buildings or districts as different programs and initiatives have the effect of making classrooms more “common.” Teachers are feeling less empowered as class sizes increase and responsibilities increase. Teachers are also feeling less heard at the national level as our Department of Education is spending more time representing the interests of predatory for-profit colleges than it is supporting public schools.
Teachers want what is best for students. Any other narrative that is being told is a lie. Teachers know that for schools to get better, we must not only bring in the best and brightest young people to our profession, but we must retain great teachers. The evidence is right in front of us; retaining great teachers is good for our schools. It is clear that in order to retain these teachers the teaching profession must be empowered and supported. Having a teaching workforce that feels empowered, autonomous, and supported will do nothing but make our schools stronger.