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Context matters in reporting: Attrition, vacancies, mobility, and our teacher pipeline

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The latest numbers on teacher attrition and vacancies in North Carolina were released at this week’s State Board of Education meeting.

As we spend time diving into these numbers, it’s important to pay close attention to how we are talking and writing about them. It’s also important to remember that most policy issues play out differently in different classrooms, schools, and districts across our state.

Because of that, EdNC has published articles in 2017 and 2022 providing context for the data provided annually in the State of the Teaching Profession report.

Alexander Russo, who provides independent analysis of media coverage of education, enlisted the help of RAND experts urging the media to improve coverage on this issue in 2022. The researchers found: “For two years, news articles have been warning of an impending ‘mass exodus’ of K-12 public school teachers and principals, which could leave schools scrambling to fill positions.” That article led with “your teacher shortage stories are all wrong” and goes on to make recommendations to improve them.

A more nuanced analysis continues to be needed. It is important to understand statewide trends and to address the drivers of those trends, but it is just as important to understand whether teacher supply is healthy, adequate, or stressed district to district.

When data definitions change, go slower

The N.C. Center for Public Policy Research studied our supply of teachers for almost all of its more than 40 years, finding over and over again starting in the 1980s the need for “a labor pool filled with well-qualified teachers thoroughly prepared for the demands of today’s and tomorrow’s classroom, and retention and placement efforts strong enough that teachers stay on the job.” There were high water marks for attrition in 2000-01 and 2014-15.

We don’t report those numbers because the definition of attrition has changed over the years and the data is not comparable.

Our state changed how we define and report attrition in 2015-16. And “state legislators broadened the definition of a vacancy for the 2021-22 academic year and beyond to include positions filled by teachers who are provisionally licensed and rehired retirees,” says the press release for the report.

Comparisons in data across the years need to be done carefully to avoid being misleading.

Navigating the data dashboard

Here is the data dashboard. It has data for 2020-21, 2021-22, and 2022-23.

The first tab includes district, regional, and statewide data on attrition, mobility, and recoupment. Note the drop down menu for year, region, LEA, and low performing.

The second tab includes district and statewide data on teacher vacancies, including first 40 days, day 40, by subject, by grade level, and by other hard-to-staff variables, like exceptional children.

The third tab includes the reasons for teacher attrition.

The fourth tab is teacher attrition by years of experience.

The fifth tab is EVAAS index scores by attrition and years of experience.

Understanding the difference between attrition, vacancy, and mobility

Attrition is “a reduction in the number of employees that occurs when employees leave an employing unit.” Attrition data can be collected at the state and local level.

Mobility is “the relocation of an employee from one LEA/charter school to another within the state of North Carolina.” Often if teachers are unhappy, they change schools or districts instead of leaving the profession. Mobility data can be collected at the state level.

Vacancies are “a teaching position in an LEA that is not filled by an educator who holds a qualifying license.”

Recoupment is the rate “at which LEAs are able to attract transferring teachers to their system.”

Replenishment, which is often talked about as new hires, is measured in September of the school year.

See the report for even more precise data definitions.

Here are the statewide attrition rates since the change in methodology: 9.04% in 2015-16, 8.70% in 2016-17, 8.1% in 2017-18, 7.50% in 2018-19, 7.53% in 2019-20, 8.20% in 2020-21, 7.78% in 2021-22, and 11.45% in 2022-23.

It’s up. But importantly, DPI reports that hiring exceeds the attrition rate.

Here is EdNC’s reporting on this year’s report. 

What drives vacancies and attrition?

Our public school districts are the largest employer in many of our counties. They, like all large employers, are used to not being fully staffed all the time. We worry most about bus driver, classroom teacher, and principal vacancies. Those vacancies create real pain points for students and parents.

We look especially at vacancies on day 40 of the school year, which is up from 3,218 in 2021 to 5,091 in 2022 to 6,006 in 2023.

Attrition is often highest over the summer months, and mid-school year departures remain unusual, though they are on the rise in some districts. Often just after spring break, superintendents survey their teaching corps to get a sense of turnover. Those surveys inform recruitment and retention strategies for the school year ahead.

As we travel, we assess whether teacher supply is healthy, adequate, or stressed. Over time, we’ve found that the following drivers are important district to district:

  • Salaries and compensation,
  • Teacher preparation and entry,
  • Hiring and personnel management,
  • Induction and early-career support for teachers, and
  • Working conditions.

Additional factors we consider include: effective management at the school and district level; a strong culture at the school and district level; enrollment changes; whether the district is low performing; the age of teachers (older teachers are less mobile, younger teachers are more mobile); proximity to educator preparation programs; urban, suburban, and rural relative job opportunity; and the capacity of districts to diversify the workforce.

It is not and has never been just about the money.

Within districts we look to see if the vacancies are evenly distributed across schools or concentrated.

We always expect to see higher vacancies in elementary schools because there are more elementary schools.

We expect to see higher vacancies in hard-to-staff subjects like STEM and exceptional children.

Since the pandemic, two other factors have impacted the data: new positions funded with federal dollars and industry specifically recruiting teachers as the labor market has tightened especially in urban areas.

This is not a one-size-fits-all problem, nor is there a one-size-fits-all solution. 

Because if you look, you will find stories that challenge our perceptions. Fifth grade teacher Alisha King taught for four years in Tennessee, but now makes the long commute to Hot Springs Elementary in Madison County. Why?

“I love the kids, the parents, the faculty,” she said. “Every one is welcome here. I’m thankful I can rely on team members. We really work together as a team.”

EdNC will be conducting research on the issues surfaced by the data in the report, including an in-depth look at the exceptional children teacher workforce.

The why behind the data matters.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.