The disruptive pandemic years pushed the challenge of keeping great teachers in classrooms to the top of the nation’s education agenda. Other publications have noted that while fewer teachers left during the height of the pandemic, turnover rates are on the rise again.
But the current state is more alarming than what most reports cite. Districts and researchers tend to report turnover as the percentage of teachers who leave their district or the profession entirely, which understates the actual effects of teacher turnover on schools and students by overlooking the impact of teachers transferring to other schools within their district.
Our original research, derived from field work with six large school districts, shows that more teachers are leaving their schools than ever before. This analysis takes a closer look at three key findings:
To end this cycle of instability, we must address the root cause of the issue: a job that isn't attractive or sustainable enough to ensure we can properly educate all students.
See our interactive data and analysis below and what each takeaway means for students, families, and school systems.
Building a positive and inviting school climate in which every student is known requires sustained effort and strong relationships. Teacher turnover makes that work harder. To truly understand the impact of teacher turnover on students, we need to look at the proportion of teachers who leave not just their district or the profession, but also their individual school.
Among teachers in our sample, 28% left their school or their teaching role between October 2021 and October 2022, which is substantially higher than before the pandemic. That number comprises teachers who:
The magnitude of the turnover challenge varies across the six districts in our sample, with some seeing school-level turnover as high as one in three teachers last year and one district seeing one in five. In three of these districts—Districts A, B, and D—roughly half of their overall school-level turnover is within-district, due to teachers who either moved to other schools or sought out other roles. District leaders may have more ability to influence this within-district turnover.
This level of instability is particularly concerning in our current moment, when students’ mental health and social-emotional needs are greater than ever.
At the start of the next school year, for example, a student attending a school with this amount of turnover is less likely to get a teacher they recognize. And if that student has an older sibling, they are less likely to get a teacher who has already built a relationship with their family. What’s more, a student in a school that needs more experienced teachers is highly likely to receive a teacher with only a few years of teaching experience.
Students from low-income backgrounds face additional barriers to success compared to their peers from higher-income backgrounds. As the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores showed, students in high-poverty schools lost more ground during the pandemic than their peers in low-poverty schools. These high-need schools often lack the supportive working conditions teachers require to meet their students’ needs, and as a result, they tend to have the highest turnover rates. As teachers transfer to other schools within their districts in search of more manageable workloads, the challenge only gets harder and more complex.
Schools serving the greatest proportion of students experiencing poverty lost 34% of their teachers between October 2021 and October 2022, while schools with the lowest concentration of need lost 21%. Compared to teachers in schools serving the lowest proportion of economically disadvantaged students, more teachers in high-need schools leave or move into other roles in their district—and more than double the number of teachers transfer out of their school.
Over time, this level of instability means that few teachers remain in their same school after five years of teaching—particularly in schools with the greatest concentration of poverty. This year, nearly half of teachers in the lowest-poverty schools have been there for at least five years, compared to only 35% of teachers in the highest-poverty schools.
It’s critical that students in high-need schools have consistent access to strong teachers. With more than one in three teachers leaving these schools, however, it’s unlikely that students are getting that consistent instruction from effective educators, especially when open positions are filled by less experienced, less effective teachers. This turnover also means that students aren’t able to build lasting relationships with their teachers, which can impact their social-emotional experiences in school.
Being a new teacher is incredibly hard. Most new teachers have had limited classroom practice prior to becoming responsible for a classroom of 25-30 elementary students or a full secondary roster of up to 150 students.
These teachers fill roles that look identical to those of more experienced educators, and they’re often responsible for teaching students who need the greatest support. This combination of inadequate preparation, challenging assignments, and lack of differentiation can be overwhelming for new teachers, leading to frustration and burnout.
School-level turnover has increased among teachers at all experience levels, but the rate of turnover among teachers with seven or fewer years of experience is most alarming. Within the analyzed time period, 36% of rookie teachers left their school, an increase of six percentage points compared to pre-pandemic rates. Thirty-one percent of teachers with three to seven years of experience left their school during that time.
Early-career teachers leave their district at higher rates than more experienced teachers. The proportion of teachers who move to other schools within their district looks similar across experience levels, but that movement is potentially most detrimental to early-career teachers’ growth and development. Research shows that teachers who have repeated experience teaching the same grade level or subject area improve more rapidly than those whose experience is in varied grade levels or subjects.
Schools serving greater proportions of economically disadvantaged students tend to also have the most rookie teachers—though this isn’t the only reason for high turnover rates at these schools. Compared to pre-pandemic levels, turnover at high-poverty schools is up among teachers of all experience levels.
Teachers are just starting to hit their stride around the five-year mark, so the high percentage of teachers leaving around this time underscores a cyclical impact: When schools face turnover among teachers with this level of experience, they lose those teachers' potential and typically replace them with less experienced (and often less effective) teachers. When those less experienced teachers face substantial challenges in high-poverty schools, they’re more likely to move to other schools in their district, thus perpetuating the turnover cycle.
This cycle creates a compounding effect on student experiences and outcomes, as students lack consistent instruction, struggle to build lasting relationships with their teachers, and face unstable learning conditions.
District leaders have a responsibility—and an opportunity—to address this vicious cycle of teacher turnover. To do so, they need to make the teaching job more attractive, sustainable, and supportive—particularly in schools where most students are experiencing poverty.
With one more year of ESSER spending available, district leaders can use their funds to pilot teacher retention strategies in high-need schools, while also addressing systemwide policies and practices that will enable lasting change. These practices include:
Teacher turnover is a pervasive issue that’s only increasing as our nation’s schools come out of the pandemic. But with a strategic focus on supporting teachers—particularly rookie teachers and those in high-need schools—district leaders can work toward stopping the turnover cycle and making the teaching job more sustainable for all educators.
Learn How to Improve the Teaching Job
We analyzed five years’ worth of teacher employment data from six large urban and suburban school districts across the country. Four districts have between 80,000 and 100,000 students; two districts have between 30,000 and 45,000 students. Between 19% and 56% of students in these districts qualify for free and reduced-price lunch based on direct certification.
We looked specifically at teachers who were employed in each district on October 1 in each year from 2017 to 2022. We excluded teaching aides, administrators, other school-level staff, and teachers who were not assigned to a school location. We also excluded teachers at school sites that closed or reconfigured grade levels to avoid artificially inflating the rate of teachers moving between schools.
We calculated turnover rates within each district as the number of teachers who were employed on October 1 of year n and were still employed in the same district on October 1 of year n+1, divided by the total number of teachers employed on October 1, year n.
We are defining the pre-pandemic period as the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years; the pandemic period as the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years; and the post-pandemic period as the 2022-23 school year. To calculate the average turnover rate in those periods, we took the straight, unweighted average of turnover rates from each school year within the period. The post-pandemic period considers turnover between the 2021-22 school year and the 2022-23 school year.
We calculated cross-district averages as the straight, unweighted average of turnover rates across districts among a given group of teachers. In other words, district size does not affect the relative impact of one district’s experience over another.
We conducted school-level poverty analyses by sorting schools into quartiles based on the relative poverty levels of schools in their district. Poverty levels are defined by the concentration of students enrolled in that school who are considered economically disadvantaged. We compared schools in the top quartile of poverty for a given district to schools in the top level of poverty for other districts in our sample.
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