Teacher Turnover Rate May Not Reflect True State of Job Market

Published December 9, 2009

North Carolina’s latest Teacher Turnover Report revealed 12.72 percent of teachers statewide left their classrooms between March 2008 and March 2009.

That figure is down from 13.85 percent in 2007-08 and is well below the national teacher turnover of 16.8 percent reported by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.

With some teachers retiring and others relocating to other schools outside their districts but within the state, the numbers may be even lower, said John Locke Foundation Education Policy Analyst Terry Stoops.

“They don’t take enough into consideration,” he said. “I don’t feel the turnover rate is as much as a problem as [school officials] say.”

 Inflated Stats

While the turnover rate might seem high, school officials say statistics don’t tell the whole story. In small, rural districts a few retirements or reassignments might inflate turnover in a misleading way.

Take the rural Jones County Public School System. It had the state’s highest rate of teacher loss, 25.69 percent, or 28 out of 109 teachers during the reported time period.

Jones County School Superintendent Michael Bracy said the initial numbers in the report were deceptive, however, as six teachers moved to nonteaching positions, three retired, and one was a formerly retired teacher who had returned to the classroom but hadn’t intended to stay for a long time.

“In a nutshell, 10 of the 28 were very valid moves,” he said. “Without those 10 in the mix, we would have been at a 16.5 percent loss and it would have been an average year for us.”

Developing Staff

The district often suffers chronic loss of instructors because of an inordinately high number of transient teachers on staff, said Otis Small, executive director of human resources and accountability for the district.

“Many of our teachers are married to military personnel from Camp LeJeune in Jacksonville and Cherry Point in Havelock,” he said. “When their spouse’s tour is up, they have to leave.”

Despite the constant need to refresh the teaching staff, Bracy said Jones County Public School students continue to do well in the classroom and on the Adequate Yearly Progress tests. That in itself is attracting teachers to the remote rural school district.

“Our data is showing we are a hidden jewel,” he said. “We have smaller class sizes and more personalized support. Teachers actually want to come here and teach in the district. We are doing well in achievement. Success breeds success.”

Ongoing Issue

Still, the yearly teacher turnover reports are cited as justification for taxpayer-funded programs to provide incentives for recent college graduates to enter teaching, even if there are more educators looking for work than there are openings in the most desirable urban centers and suburbs.

Alisa Chapman, associate vice president of academic planning and university-school programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the “revolving door” of teachers in the state continues to be a “phenomenal problem,” especially in middle and secondary school mathematics, science, and special education departments.

“Approximately one-third of the teaching workforce changes each year,” she said. “We have a persistent and very high teacher turnover rate. With 2,400 schools and almost 100,000 teachers, it’s a complex puzzle to put together…. The public university system is taking an active role to shore up our public education system’s supply and demand of teachers.”

One program, created by the General Assembly in 1986 as a way to prevent teacher loss, is the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program. Each year the program provides 500 high-school seniors a $6,500 annual scholarship if they promise to teach at least four years after college graduation in a licensed, full-time teaching position in North Carolina.

Working the Program

While the report shows the highest teacher turnover rates occurs in rural counties, many of the Teaching Fellows Program graduates are unable or unwilling to relocate to the more isolated school districts. Though not all new teachers want to live in rural areas, Program Administrator Jo Ann Norris said graduates have to do all they can to find a teaching job in the state.

“They repay their promissory note through teaching, and they have to be willing to make a good faith effort to go where the jobs are,” she said. “That’s the way the program works.”

One rural school district where turnover is not a problem is the state’s second smallest: Camden County, which lost only one out of its 134 teachers from March 2008 to March 2009.

“We’ve been fortunate over the last several years to have an excellent teacher retention rate,” said Camden County Public School Superintendent Ron Melchiorre. “Our staff does a tremendous job to achieve this.”

Paula Mickey, Camden County’s director of personnel and community schools, said the district’s new employee orientation, teaching mentors, and accountability programs offer new teachers a sense of well-being, employment satisfaction, and stability within the system. Camden County is reaping the benefits of the program.

“There is longevity of our teachers, and that not only benefits the students but the entire system,” Mickey said. “When people are in place and they’re not moving around, they become stronger teachers, and that makes for better classrooms and [better] results.”

Karen Welsh ([email protected]) is a contributor to Carolina Journal, published by the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, where a previous version of this story appeared. Reprinted with permission.