Rising Teacher Turnover: How It’s Impacting the Classroom and What We Can Do About It

There has been no shortage of attention devoted to teacher turnover rates in K–12 schools across the United States in recent years. Indeed, a simple internet search will reveal dozens of concern-filled articles and blog posts about the rising number of teachers who leave the profession each year, with some estimates indicating that around 40 percent leave after five years.

The concern is certainly justified, as losing teachers takes a toll on both students and remaining faculty members, not to mention school districts as a whole. In fact, a 2017 Learning Policy Institute report authored by noted education researchers Desiree Carver-Thomas and Linda Darling-Hammond stated that it costs nearly $20,000 to replace every teacher lost annually in an urban district. 

In their report, Carver-Thomas and Darling-Hammond also called attention to some startling statistics, including that turnover rates “are 50% higher for teachers in Title I schools, which serve more low-income students,” and “70% higher for teachers in schools serving the largest concentrations of students of color.” To that point, teachers of color tend to leave the profession faster than their white colleagues.

This data is troubling, as research shows that low-income students—particularly low-income students of color—typically lack access to highly qualified, experienced teachers, a phenomenon that Darling-Hammond has been writing about for more than 20 years. In light of the fact that another recent Learning Policy Institute report focused on the beneficial role teachers of color often play in education (especially for students of color), keeping these teachers in the classroom should undoubtedly be a priority for school administrators.

With that said, let’s take a look at some of the most common reasons teachers leave their jobs, along with what can be done about them.

Why teachers leave
  • Lack of support: Along with high teacher turnover rates, a large and growing national teacher shortage is piquing concerns. Emma Garcia and Elaine Weiss of the Economic Policy Institute published a series of reports related to the issue in 2019, including one tackling the lack of professional mentoring and support commonly cited as problematic by teachers—especially those just starting out in their careers.

  • Working conditions: When asked why they are tempted to walk away from the job, teachers often point to factors such as large class sizes, piles of paperwork, and long hours spent grading papers or otherwise preparing for the next day outside of school hours. Many also report struggling to cope with the intrusion of broader societal issues into the classroom—including racial segregation, rising poverty rates, and shrinking parental involvement—as well as the pressures associated with higher and earlier academic achievement benchmarks.

  • Stagnant or subpar wages: Weiss and Garcia's third report in the EPI’s five-part series on the teacher shortage, which focused on educator salaries, led with the statement that “The perceived financial hardships in teaching are real.” Although teachers in most K–12 settings are required to have at least a bachelor’s degree, the EPI report noted that their pay is typically much less than that of other college graduates. According to the report, this situation is worse in low-income schools, where teachers tend to be paid less and end up taking on more extracurricular or side jobs to help make ends meet. 

How to make teachers want to stay  

  • Positive workplace attributes: Support. Respect. Leadership and management styles that feel inclusive, welcoming, and flexible. These workplace attributes can positively impact teachers and make them want to stay in the classroom, according to a report from the George Washington University Graduate School of Education that also recommends school administrators put a mentorship program in place for incoming teachers and otherwise work to build a school culture that is community-oriented. Resources such as adequate supplies and updated educational technology can help as well.

  • Independence: Many teachers report feeling stressed on the job because they lack the authority and autonomy to make their own professional decisions. In an opinion piece published by The Atlantic, high school teacher Ashley Lamb-Sinclair described a profound experience she had while collaborating with a colleague: Rather than using scripted lesson plans, the duo worked together to design engaging assignments that sparked creativity and greater learning in students. Lamb-Sinclair called this approach “teaching outrageously” and contended that being allowed more freedom and creativity in the classroom is a key protection against burnout, which is a documented workplace hazard for teachers. (However, she pointed out that autonomy does not equal total independence, as administrators still have an important role to play.)

  • Support and investment: In addition to the obvious (higher salaries and consistent benefits), teachers can benefit from other kinds of support and investment. For example, with regard to attracting and retaining teachers of color, a group of educators argued in 2015 that professional development programs need to be diverse and relevant, not standardized. Writing for the Shanker Institute blog, the educators pointed to several opportunities that specifically target teachers of color in the interest of providing specialized support. Furthermore, the educators contended that teacher training programs could offer grant programs to ease the prohibitive expenses often faced by students from marginalized communities who aspire to become teachers.

The road ahead

It goes without saying that the growing teacher shortage and high teacher turnover rates are concerning, yet they also present an opportunity for school districts, policymakers, and others to come up with innovative ways to both keep teachers on the job for longer and attract new and diverse candidates to the profession. As the EPI's Garcia and Weiss phrased it: 

“...only if policymakers think holistically about how to address the teacher shortage will they find the necessary resources to adequately fund our schools, to eliminate the barriers to teaching and learning, and to elevate the respect for teachers’ knowledge, experience, and judgment.”

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