Teacher turnover: Not all doom and gloom

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The sky might not be falling after all, at least according to researchers Doug Harris and Scott Adams. Gently, but firmly, they dismantle one of the favorite crises du jour: the notion that teacher turnover rates are much higher than those in other professions. First, they provide some convincing evidence that a lot of the turnover in the profession is not "permanent" in nature (meaning teachers who get fed up and quit altogether), but that the profession is more of a revolving door, encouraging relatively easy exits and reentries. Second, if we are really serious about reducing turnover, we need to look to the other end of a teacher's career: early retirements. Take heed, New York.

In the Economics of Education Review, Harris and Adams pool ten years of Census Bureau data, studying a much larger group than turnover expert Richard Ingersoll has previously used. While Ingersoll's contention that teachers leave at a much higher rate than nurses--considered a comparable profession--is one that has gained tremendous traction among policymakers, Harris and Adams find that the differences disappear altogether if only public school teachers are considered, since private schools lose teachers at a higher rate. Also, compared to accountants (8.01 percent) and social workers (14.94 percent), the annual turnover rate for teachers (7.73 percent) is relatively good.

Harris and Adams theorize that "permanent" turnover is aggravated by the generous pensions that teachers receive relative to other professions. While other employers need allocate approximately $0.92 per hour to a white collar worker's retirement benefit, pension plans for teachers cost about $2.40 per hour of a teacher's wage. Given the generosity of these plans, older teachers are inclined to leave at a younger age than most workers leave their jobs. These results, assert the authors, "strongly suggest that the primary difference between teacher turnover and the other professions is in early retirement."