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Teacher Turnover During COVID: New Data and Insights

There are a lot of headlines and narratives out there that teachers are fleeing the profession this year. The data's clear: Teachers aren't leaving—yet—but there's still a crisis.

We need to reimagine the teaching job. And by looking at the data, we can find existing bright spots that help us to build toward a more dynamic, rewarding, collaborative and sustainable teaching job.

Our latest analysis explores three different areas of teacher turnover data, telling a nuanced story about teacher turnover that has significant implications for how leaders respond to the unique situation in their communities. Read all three pieces below to learn more and find key takeaways and actions to improve the teacher experience in your district.

Table of Contents:

Has Teacher Turnover Spiked During COVID? It Depends Where You Look

Confounding expectations: These teachers have been MORE likely to stick around during COVID

One Small but Crucial Way Equity May Have Improved During the Pandemic

 

Has Teacher Turnover Spiked During COVID? It Depends Where You Look

The pandemic has had a profound and widely documented effect on students and educators, leading many to project a massive increase in teacher turnover. However, data from eight ERS partner districts tell a more nuanced story about teacher turnover that has significant implications for how leaders respond to the unique situation in their communities.

Our starting place: Lower turnover in 2020

Our analysis supplements the valuable work of other researchers and state education agencies and builds on our prior analysis showing that district-level teacher turnover declined in the first six months of the pandemic. This year, we expanded our analysis to include eight large urban districts that collectively employ more than 28,000 teachers and educate approximately 400,000 students.

 

Between October 1, 2019 and October 1, 2020, teachers in these districts were on average 22% less likely to leave their school systems than in the prior twelve months. At the time, we attributed this to a combination of uncertainty about the course of the pandemic and the high unemployment rates that immediately followed the first COVID-19 outbreaks.

The turnover story in 2021 varied widely across systems

Given the stress of the 2020-21 school year, some predicted an overall increase in turnover going into this fall. While we saw this in some districts, turnover trends varied widely across the eight communities we studied (Figure 1). Specifically:

  • In three of the eight districts, teacher turnover remained at 2020 levels – as much as six percentage points below pre-pandemic levels.
  • In two districts, turnover rose in 2021 but remained below pre-pandemic levels by roughly two percentage points.
  • In three districts, turnover increased to the point where it surpassed pre-pandemic levels, exacerbating longstanding talent challenges in these communities.
 

Our findings (Figure 1) track with publicly reported data gathered by Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum, including district-level analysis conducted by the Maryland Department of Education (Figure 2).

 

Takeaways for district and school leaders

  1. Use survey-based reports to supplement (not define) your understanding of teacher experience in your schools. National headlines are attention-grabbing, but there is no substitute for listening to your constituents, observing the experiences of students and educators and digging into your own data to understand local trends.
  2. Look for “do now” actions that could help you fundamentally improve teachers’ experience and impact. While money is valuable—especially in communities where teachers struggle to earn a living wage—time is golden. With strategic use of ESSER funds and a willingness to adjust longstanding practices, leaders can free up more teacher time for collaboration, reflection and relationships—and help educators recharge.
  3. Start “building toward” a bold new vision for the teaching job. Teaching should be a dynamic, rewarding, collaborative, and sustainable job that attracts and retains a diverse group of talented professionals. Realizing this vision requires re-thinking the fundamental structures of the teaching job—including schedules, teaming models, class configurations and the right mix of roles and responsibilities. After two years of upheaval in our schools, leaders have a unique opportunity to engage educators at all levels in questioning the status quo and fundamentally re-imagining the daily requirements of the teaching job.

 

 

 

Confounding expectations: These teachers have been MORE likely to stick around during COVID

Last week, we reported that in many large urban districts, teacher turnover between 2020 and 2021 remained lower than before the pandemic – in some systems, by as much as six percentage points. But there’s one group of teachers whose likelihood to return to their jobs this year was most improved compared to before the pandemic – and it’s not the group you might expect.

Our analysis indicates that, in most of the eight large urban districts ERS studied this year, turnover rates among rookie teachers – defined as teachers with fewer than three years of experience – have declined most compared to the pre-pandemic years. This trend represents a crucial bright spot in the face of a stubborn challenge that undermines school stability and instructional improvement efforts, especially in our highest-poverty schools.

 

 

     
   
     

Rookie teacher turnover remains lower than before the pandemic

Figure 1 shows the range of teacher turnover rates in the eight districts we studied, broken down by teacher years of experience (YOE). Before the pandemic, the median turnover rate for rookie teachers in these districts was 26.3%; in 2020, this dropped to 19.0%, before rising slightly in 2021 to 21.5%.

In contrast, after also declining in 2020, median turnover among more experienced teachers has edged closer to pre-pandemic levels. After dropping from 16.0% to 11.4%, a median 13.4% of teachers with 3-24 years of experience left their districts between October 1, 2020 and October 1, 2021. Among the most senior teachers, median turnover in 2021 slightly exceeded pre-pandemic levels.

Rookie turnover remains unsustainably high, especially in schools with higher proportions of low-income students and students of color. But the shifts we saw in 2021 indicate that the gap between rookie and experienced teacher turnover may be closing in many communities (Figure 2).

     
   
     

In five of eight districts, the gap in turnover between rookie and experienced teachers declined in 2021, by anywhere from 1.9 to 5.2 percentage points. In districts B and H, the gap increased compared to pre-pandemic levels, but by less than one percentage point. (District G experienced unusually high rates of turnover among rookie teachers in 2021.)

 

Takeaways for district and school leaders

High turnover of rookie teachers contributes to a vicious cycle of turnover and instability, especially in schools with the highest proportions of low-income students and students of color. After two years of compounding challenges, the relative decline in rookie teacher turnover in many districts is a bright spot for leaders to build on. Here’s how:

1. Invest in strategic “shelter and develop” models for rookie teachers. Done well, this approach significantly reduces workload for rookie teachers while ensuring they receive more job-embedded expert support. ERS’ Growing Great Teachers toolkit offers several models for how this can work in practice.

2. Codify instructionally focused teacher leadership roles that foster deep collaboration among diverse groups of educators. To be effective, teacher leaders need time for planning, teaching and modeling instruction, and observing and providing feedback for a team of colleagues. Ideally, teacher leadership is constructed as part of a progressive career pathway, with increased responsibility and compensation available to the most effective teachers.

3. Start planning now for the tradeoffs required to sustain your rookie teacher support strategy. ESSER funds provide a near-term opportunity to implement shelter and develop and other strategic models. Before these funds expire, leaders can begin the work of identifying less strategic investments that are not contributing to improved student outcomes and prepare to ramp them down over the next two and a half years.

 

 

 

One Small but Crucial Way Equity May Have Improved During the Pandemic

 

We recently reported that, based on analysis of personnel data from eight ERS partner districts, teacher turnover rose in 2021 but in most communities remained lower than before COVID.

But teacher turnover doesn’t play out the same way in all schools. Higher-poverty schools—where the need to better attract, develop, and retain excellent educators is most crucial—typically experience more turnover than lower-poverty schools.

Building on our prior analysis, we examined teacher turnover before and during the pandemic in the highest- and lowest-poverty of schools in six large urban districts. We used district definitions of poverty (typically the percentage of students receiving federal free or reduced lunch benefits) and focused on the 25% of schools in each district with the highest poverty rate and the 25% of schools in each district with the lowest poverty rate.

 

Here’s what we found: Going into the 2021-22 school year, higher-poverty schools sustained a bigger drop in teacher turnover than low-poverty schools when compared to pre-pandemic turnover rates in each group of schools. In other words, the gap in teacher turnover between high- and low-poverty schools is generally smaller than it was before the pandemic, mostly due to lower turnover in the highest-poverty schools:

  • Before the pandemic, the median district-wide turnover rate in high-poverty schools was 30.4%—that is, 3 in 10 teachers in high-poverty schools would leave their school each year. After dropping to 20.9% in 2020, teacher turnover in these schools increased slightly in 2021, to 22.2%: more than eight percentage points below pre-pandemic levels.
  • In the lowest-poverty schools, the median district-wide turnover rate before the pandemic was 17.5%. As in high-poverty schools, it dropped in 2020 (to 14.3%) before rising slightly in 2021 (to 15.6%). This left low-poverty schools with a turnover rate less than two percentage points below pre-pandemic levels.
     
   
     

Which teachers were more likely to stay in high-poverty schools in 2021?

In a typical year, teachers who exit their school either leave the district entirely (leavers) or move to another school or role in the same district (movers).

The biggest contributor to lower teacher turnover in high- vs. low-poverty schools was a drop in the proportion of leavers from high-poverty schools.

In the six districts we studied, the median proportion of leavers from high-poverty schools dropped from 18.2% before the pandemic to 13.7% in 2021. In low-poverty schools the leavers group went from 13.1% before the pandemic to 11.2% in 2021.

There was virtually no change in the proportion of movers, or teachers who transfer from one school to another within the same district. Twice the proportion of teachers in high-poverty schools moving within the district as teachers in low-poverty schools.

     
   
     

Implications and action steps

Lower turnover in high-poverty schools offers a potential bright spot, just like the related but distinct trend of lower turnover among rookie teachers. But the fact is, teachers are still more likely to leave high-poverty schools. How can leaders build from the current moment to sustain lower turnover rates going forward?

  • Find out what’s happening in high-poverty schools with low turnover rates. How have teachers responded to pandemic challenges in these schools? What are school leaders doing to support and strengthen collaboration among these educators? How could you apply learning from these schools across the district?
  • Address intra-district churn with policies that encourage great teachers to teach in the highest-need schools. Before the pandemic, intra-district churn accounted for about one-third of the turnover gap between high- and low-poverty schools; in 2021, it accounted for about two-thirds of the gap. Consider creating or improving incentives for highly effective teachers to work where they can have the greatest impact on students (e.g., higher pay, more time for planning and collaboration, reduction in non-instructional duties).
  • Build from bright spots to pursue a “do now, build toward” vision for a reimagined teaching job. Teaching should be a dynamic, rewarding, collaborative, and sustainable job that attracts and retains an increasingly diverse group of skilled educators. Not sure where to start? See these catalytic entry points for fostering and accelerating change in your community.
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