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Executive Summary: Teacher Turnover Before, During, and After COVID

In some places, teacher turnover dropped in 2020. But a closer look reveals a pressing need to make the teaching job more rewarding, collaborative, and sustainable.

New ERS analysis shows that teacher turnover declined during 2020 in six districts we studied. But the same challenges that contributed to teacher shortages before the pandemic remain, and there is still a deep, pressing need to make the teaching job more rewarding, collaborative, and sustainable.


Before COVID, the shortage of qualified, skilled teachers — especially in our lowest-income communities and hardest-to-staff roles — was among the top challenges facing education leaders. And with the stress of the pandemic, survey data showed that almost half of the public school teachers who left the profession since March 2020 cite COVID-19 as the main reason.

But as school systems ramp up hiring for next fall, concrete data on actual teacher turnover is scarce. To fill in that gap, ERS worked with six of our district partners — all large, urban districts, spread across the country — to understand their actual teacher turnover patterns in 2020.

What We Found:

In the six districts we studied, teacher turnover declined from an average of 17.3 percent over the prior three years, to 12.6 percent in 2020. In a school with 40 teachers, this is the equivalent of retaining two more teachers than in previous years.

We saw lower attrition in all six districts we studied and in virtually all subgroups in each district.1 The biggest decline occurred among early career teachers in high-poverty schools — a group that typically leaves their districts at the highest rate. This means that, in a uniquely tumultuous year, students in the highest-poverty schools experienced the greatest increase in staff stability compared to prior years.2 

Unpacking the Findings:

Reduced teacher turnover is often a good thing. But it shouldn’t justify complacency. With new federal stimulus funding, we have a unique opportunity to make the teaching job more rewarding, collaborative and sustainable. 

  • Even before the pandemic, teaching was a challenging job. 3 As a result, turnover was consistently high, especially in higher-poverty schools and among early career teachers.
  • Working conditions and job satisfaction haven’t improved. Economic conditions likely led more teachers to stay in their jobs in 2020. In the communities we studied, unemployment rates were two to three times higher during summer 2020 than just a few months prior. And historically, when unemployment rises, teachers (like most workers) are less likely to leave their jobs. As the economy improves and unemployment declines, teacher attrition may start to rise again.
  • We have a wealth of other indicators that point to a problem. Being spread thin with technology challenges and various modes of teaching, declining student engagement, fear of contracting COVID, and balancing their own caretaking responsibilities have made teaching this year even harder. Signs point to increased workloads and declining job satisfaction; 84 percent of teachers and administrators say teacher morale is lower than it was prior to; and one-third of teachers say working during the pandemic has made them more likely to leave teaching or retire early. 

Where We Go From Here:

With new federal funding, state, district, and school leaders should be exploring how to use stimulus dollars in ways that improve the teaching job. This category of spending is one of ERS’ five research-backed “Power Strategies” that address students’ urgent academic and social-emotional needs and change underlying cost structures to make implementation sustainable. 

Districts and schools can build toward making teachers’ jobs more rewarding, collaborative, and sustainable by investing in the kinds of structures and conditions that matter most — such as competitive compensation with opportunities to grow over time, supportive school leadership, sufficient time for collaboration, and teaching loads that make it possible to build relationships with their students and adjust approaches to meet their needs.

By converting systems and practices that often cause teachers to leave into ones that help them thrive can help ensure that the lower teacher turnover we saw in 2020 wasn’t an aberration, but the beginning of a trend toward increased satisfaction, job sustainability, workforce stability, and student success.

 

Endnotes

1 Subgroup data was analyzed by gender, by race/ethnicity, by grade-level taught, whether or not a teacher taught special education, by school poverty level, and by years of experience.

2 Our analysis compared employee snapshots from October 2020 to those from October 2016-2019. Note that these findings do not account for teacher absences, substitute shortages, cross-school turnover, or teachers who may have resigned at the end of 2020 or so far in 2021.

3 In 2018, the teacher wage gap hit a record high of 21.4 percent. Despite broad support for increasing teacher pay, teachers earn less than comparable college-graduate workers in all 50 states, and are three times more likely to balance multiple jobs (during the school year) than US workers overall. 46 of teachers percent report high levels of daily stress — on par with doctors and nurses as the highest among all occupational groups. 

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