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Curious About Teacher Departures? Simply Ask.

Why do teachers leave?

It’s a fundamental question school districts have struggled with for years.

But with the annual teacher attrition rate hovering somewhere around 8 percent, school leaders are scrambling to find new ways to attract—and especially retain—great teachers.

We know the broad strokes of why teachers leave: budget restrictions, increasing class sizes and work load, poor professional development, restrictive certification requirements, salary, et cetera.

But when it comes to specifics, school districts are often left guessing why a teacher decided to leave their system, with very little hard data to confirm their assumptions.

Dick Startz, professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara attempted to get at the ‘why’ of teacher exits by analyzing data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Teacher Follow-up Survey (TFS) of the School and Staffing Survey for the Brookings Institution’s education policy blog, Chalkboard.

Here’s three key takeaways from Startz’s analysis.

1. An equal amount of teachers move to new school districts as do leave the teaching profession altogether

The ED survey found that somewhere around 16 percent of teachers left their current jobs in recent years. Of those, nearly half (8 percent) moved on to another teaching position. Startz explains that this number has been relatively unchanged for many years.

The other 8 percent of exiting teachers moved on to new professions. According to Startz, this number has increased significantly in recent years—something that should concern school leaders.

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2. The majority of teachers who leave for other careers remain in the education sector

According to Startz, nearly two-thirds of those teachers who leave the profession either retire or move on to another job within K-12 education. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, he says, especially when these teachers become high-quality school leaders. Another, 9 percent of those who leave the profession go back to school or leave to take care of a family member.

It’s the other 2 percent that leave teaching for a completely new profession that should concern educators, Startz says. “While the number is small, if you’re running a school district you still might want to have a better idea of where the leavers are leaving to.”

So where are they going? Startz analyzed other survey data to figure out what other industries teachers were entering. These included law, medicine, higher education, and social work, to name a few.

Writes Startz:

“Those who leave teaching go to an incredibly wide variety of different jobs. It is notable that the first three destinations—lawyers, doctors, and professors—are all lucrative or prestigious jobs. Past that point, the destination jobs are all over the map.”

3. The small percentage of teachers who leave the profession can have a hugely negative impact on school districts

The 8 percent of teachers who leave their profession may not seem that significant. And the 2 percent of those who leave the education industry altogether may seem even less so. But in districts starved for resources, especially in smaller, more rural communities, even a modest exodus of teaching talent can have a huge impact.

“Schools lose about one teacher out of six each year,” says Startz. “If you’re a principal or an HR director that’s a huge burden, without respect for where the teachers may be going.”

Startz is adamant that his analysis is general. The reasons why teachers leave a particular district or school can’t be fully determined by a broad strokes national survey.

To get a clearer sense for how to better retain teachers, school districts should do their own research to determine why teachers are leaving. The best place to start? Ask.

As competition for students heats up, school district leaders are increasingly turning to family exit surveys and focus groups to determine the reasons that parents and students choose out. It’s reasonable to take a similar approach with teachers and staff.

Well-implemented teacher exit surveys or focus groups may very well help prevent talented educators from leaving their schools.

Do you use teacher exit surveys to find out the reasons why faculty members move on? What programs does your school or district use to boost teacher retention and morale? Tell us in the comments.