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Teacher turnover isn’t always what it seems

Takeaways on turnover:

The state’s turnover report says, “Generally, teachers are remaining in the classroom in North Carolina.” There are 96,081 teachers across our state, and in 2014-15, 14,255 teachers are included in the turnover numbers.

The state’s turnover rate has been relatively flat the last three years — 14.33 percent in 2012-13, 14.12 percent in 2013-14, and 14.84 percent in 2014-15.

1,028 teachers left North Carolina to teach in other states. Teachers being recruited by urban districts from rural districts may be more cause for concern.

For 2012-13, the most recent year for which there is data, the national turnover rate was 15.8 percent.

Media coverage for the recent release of a state teacher turnover report was extensive. And the many news reports often focused on dissatisfied teachers and actions by policymakers that some see as exacerbating teachers’ desire to leave the profession, even moving to other states. The picture painted was of a profession under attack, even though the state’s report says, “Generally, teachers are remaining in the classroom in North Carolina.”

The official turnover rate for 2014-15 was 14.8 percent, which translates into attrition of 14,255 teachers out of the state total of 96,081 teachers. Here is how the rate has fluctuated over the past five years: 

DPI turnover report
DPI turnover report

Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, a Republican, pointed out that this percentage doesn’t really tell the whole story, and he called out the media for giving short shrift to the nuance of the numbers. He puts the percentage of teachers who left teaching last year at 6.8 percent. 

According to Forest’s press secretary and director of operations Jamey Falkenbury, the Lieutenant Governor got his number by lumping together a few categories: 

Turnover but remained in education — 4,492

Teachers who retired: which includes those who retired with reduced benefits — 479 — and those who retired with full benefits — 1,755. 

Teachers who’s contracts weren’t renewed, which includes all teachers in the category “Turnover initiated by LEA” — 982. 

Adding those numbers together and then dividing by 96,081 — the total number of teachers — they got a percentage of about 8 percent, which they subtracted from the overall turnover rate of 14.8 percent to get 6.8 percent.

EdNC’s analysis

The state’s report, entitled “Annual Report on Teachers Leaving the Profession,” and the overall turnover rate, need to differentiate better between teachers that change jobs and teachers that leave the profession.

As we reported initially, when you delve down into the turnover numbers, you see a lot of diversity in what they actually show. 

The largest single turnover category was teachers who left for personal reasons. In all, 5,681 out of the total 14,255 teachers included in the turnover percentage came from this category, up from 1,539 in 2010-11– a 269 percent increase. But an analysis of these numbers show that the 2010-11 amount should be much higher: 3,735, which would make the five-year increase 52 percent. That is still a relatively large increase, and we need to know more about this trend. See EdNC’s article on the inaccuracies in the turnover report. 

Why teachers leave

This group does also include those teachers who left because they are “dissatisfied with teaching” or changed careers — 1,209 — and those who took teaching jobs in other states — 1,028. The number of teachers leaving because they are dissatisfied with teaching or for a career change has increased since 2010-11 from 640 to 816 to 887 to 1,011 to 1,209 in 2014-15. The  numbers of teachers resigning to teach in another state has increased since 2010-11 from 312 to 341 to 455 to 734 to 1,028 in 2014-15.

But when you pull these teachers out from the rest, they amount to only 2,237 of the 14,255 teachers who make up the 14.8 percent turnover rate. If we were only counting these teachers, then the rate would be about 2.3 percent. However, many media outlets focused mainly on these teachers. 

The second largest attrition group were those teachers who left their current positions but remained in education — 4,492. These teachers are now teaching in charter schools, private schools, other districts, or simply moved to non-teaching positions. 

The other category that involves teachers leaving voluntarily is vague. It includes teachers who resigned for unknown reasons or “other reasons.” This accounts for 974 teachers. And then another category includes teachers who are recorded as “Turnover Initiated by LEA” (local education agency) — 982 teachers.

The State’s take

In the state’s press release on the report, State Superintendent June Atkinson said the following: 

“In the past five years, the state’s teacher turnover rate has increased in all but one year (2013-14). We won’t reverse this trend until we address the root causes of why teachers leave the classroom.”

What the media reported

The Charlotte Observer

The Charlotte Observer looked at turnover in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, and during its reporting, discovered that the statistics released by the state needed to be corrected when it came to district numbers. 

Screen Shot 2015-10-15 at 11.02.48 AM
Charlotte Observer Headline

As a result of questions from The Charlotte Observer, the state revised its turnover report. The revised figures showed that 49 percent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg teachers left for personal reasons (higher than the statewide percentage) and only 24 percent of teachers who left the district stayed in education (a lower number than the statewide percentage). Overall, the district had a 16.5 percent turnover rate, which is a 12-year high.

At the local level, some aspects of turnover have a different significance than at the state level. For instance, if a teacher moves to another district, it’s not as big of a deal at the state level. That’s still an educator in a North Carolina school. But at the local level, that’s one less teacher.

The Winston Salem Journal

In the Winston-Salem Journal, Arika Herron reported that all of the reasons teachers give for leaving aren’t bad. 

Winston-Salem Journal Headline
Winston-Salem Journal Headline

She points out that, in addition to going to other states, changing careers, or resigning from dissatisfaction, many of the teachers were moving between districts. She also notes that “Leaving to teach in another of the state’s public school systems was the top self-reported reason for turnover in 2014-15. More than 3,000 teachers reported they were resigning to teach in another district.” 

She also highlighted the fact that retirement was a big reason for the teacher turnover, as well as family relocation. 

On the local level, she covered turnover in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, noting that the system had a turnover rate of 12.34 percent, losing 472 teachers.

WUNC

WUNC’s coverage of the report focused on those teachers who left North Carolina to teach in other states. It says that 1,082 teachers did so last year. According to the report, the actual number is 1,028. The WUNC report noted that the number is more than three times the same category in 2010.

WUNC Headline
WUNC Headline

Education Week

Education Week’s article attributed turnover to dissatisfied teachers.

Education Week Headline
Education Week Headline

The article focuses on the “personal reasons” category of the turnover report, singling it out as the area of greatest concern. 

“North Carolina lost about 2,700 teachers last year due to causes that suggest personal dissatisfaction with the state’s public schools, whether through outright exit from the profession, poaching by other states, or early retirement. That compares to about 2,245 teachers leaving for such reasons the year before, a 21 percent increase.”

The Washington Post

The Washington Post covered the turnover report largely by summarizing what other  media said about the numbers.

Washington Post Headline
Washington Post Headline

But also included in the article is the comparison chart that shows the changes in different turnover categories over the years. As we pointed out in another article, the data on “Turnover for Personal Reasons,” in this chart isn’t accurate and gives a misleading account of the growth in this category.

Coverage with a Point of View

Progress NC

The Huffington Post picked up this piece from Progress North Carolina.

Huffington Post Headline
Huffington Post Headline

The article states that turnover is at a five year high and that the rate has increased almost every year in that time, noting that this period has been marked by Republican control of the General Assembly. 

The article notes the “nearly 15 percent” turnover rate and goes on to say: 

“Those aren’t just numbers — they’re real people and families who are having to uproot their entire lives just to find a state that actually values public education.”  It includes a video of educators who moved from Asheville to Georgia for higher-paying jobs.

The Conservative Take

Terry Stoops over at the libertarian John Locke Foundation went deep into the numbers and pointed out that all categories of turnover aren’t equal.

“…only a fraction of those counted as “turnover” actually make a conscious choice to leave the teaching profession.  Employers in the private and nonprofit sectors would not necessarily categorize lateral moves or the expiration of a time-limited/temporary employment contract as turnover.  Yet, both are included in North Carolina’s annual turnover calculation.”

He does mention the increase in teachers leaving to work in other states, but he also breaks down the categories to show that many of the teachers who left their jobs did so for reasons that have nothing to do with political climate or frustration with the state of education. And he points out that the number of teachers who left because they were disgruntled in some way or wanted to teach in another state is relatively small. 

In another article for Carolina Journal, Stoops tackles the divide between Forest’s turnover percentage and the state’s, pointing out again the small number of teachers who left their jobs voluntarily. 

He also mentions something nobody else notes: North Carolina imports many teachers. He says that 8,500 teachers from outside the state got North Carolina teaching licenses between 2010 and 2014 and became classroom teachers in the state the following year. In contrast, he says only about 2,200 teachers left the state to teach elsewhere during the same time period. He also notes that, for the most part, the number of out-of-state teachers getting licenses here has been “on the rise” since 2010. 

John Hood, president of the John William Pope Foundation and chairman of the John Locke Foundation, took the media to task for its inaccurate portrayal of the turnover situation.

Carolina Journal Headline
Carolina Journal Headline

“Did you hear that 15 percent of North Carolina’s public schoolteachers left the profession last year, and that conditions are so bad that teachers are leaving our state in droves to teach somewhere else?

“If your answer is yes, then I have some bad news: You’ve been had. Neither of these claims is even close to the truth. I wish I could say that they were just being passed around social media. Unfortunately, the false claims have also been reported prominently by several North Carolina newspapers and at the top of several North Carolina newscasts.” 

The national turnover rate

For 2012-13, the most recent year for which there is data, the national turnover rate (for teachers leaving the profession and those moving to a different school) was 15.8 percent. It should be noted that the comparison isn’t exact. As Stoops points out: “…the NCES definition of turnover is not perfectly aligned to North Carolina’s, so comparisons to the national rate require caution and qualification.”

A more recent report found that turnover for new teachers nationally is lower than expected. An article by the National Education Association (NEA), entitled “Teacher Turnover Is Much Lower Than You Probably Think,” says “the NCES report shows that just 17 percent had left after five years.”

A historic perspective

While the Republicans have controlled the General Assembly, the overall turnover rate in North Carolina has increased from 11.17 percent in 2010-11 (10,792 teachers) to 14.8 percent in 2014-15 (14,255 teachers). The rate has been relatively flat the last three years — 14.33 percent in 2012-13 to 14.12 percent in 2013-14 to 14.84 percent in 2014-15.

Going back even further to 2005-06, the state had a rate of 12.58 percent, which went down slightly to 12.31 in 2006-07. One thing to note, however, is that after 2006-07 the state changed the way it reported turnover, according to the turnover report for 2007-08. Prior to then, the rates were self reported by the districts. After that year, the state instead calculated the rate by basing it on those people employed in districts as teachers according to the DPI Licensure/Salary database, which is the calculation it used for the School Report Cards. 

According to a document examining comparisons between self-reported turnover by districts and turnover calculated by the state for the 2006-07 School Report Cards, the state found a different rate than the one calculated from district reports. Based on district reported data, the rate was 12.3 percent rate. The state, however, calculated a 12.6 percent rate. 

Not a big difference, but it does show that the state changed how it measured turnover in an effort to be more accurate.

Under the new turnover calculation procedure, the rate in 2007-08 went up to 13.85 percent and then began dropping every year until it reached 11.10 percent in 2009-10. It went up slightly in 2010-11 to 11.17 percent. 

Since 2005-06, the number of teachers in the state went from 101,229 to last year’s number of 96,081.

While the political climate is one factor affecting teacher satisfaction and turnover, according to the U.S. Department of Education, other factors include the economy and coming out of the recession, satisfaction with the school and school leadership, the student population they are teaching, number of years teaching and whether they have a mentor, and salary, among many others. The new teacher ranks are shifting with some thinking of teaching as “temporary work in building a varied career.”

A real impact

Whether you deem the turnover rate high or low and no matter how you parse the numbers, the fact remains that when a teacher leaves a district, it has an impact, especially given our concerns about the teacher pipeline. And the state’s turnover rate isn’t reflective of turnover rates in individual counties. According to DPI’s press release, local district turnover rates ranged from a high of 33.55 percent in Northampton County to a low of 5.75 percent in Graham County. We need to know more about the LEAs with the highest turnover rates.

Highest

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have not been shy about recruiting from other districts across North Carolina.

And, for our rural counties near the state border, the competition across state lines is real. 

Hoke County’s turnover rate is almost 26 percent. That’s for last year, but this year something happened in Hoke County that’s never happened before, according to Donna Thomas, assistant superintendent of human resources in Hoke County Schools. She said some of her veteran teachers left to go teach in nearby South Carolina. These teachers — off the top of her head, she could remember at least three — didn’t move, but simply drive over the state line every day to teach. 

“We’ve never lost teachers to South Carolina,” she said. “Not unless they move there.”

She speculated on the reasons for their departure, citing the lack of significant raises for veteran teachers as one likely contributor, and the fact that the job has become harder in recent years. 

“Teachers are just under more stress now,” she said. “It’s just a different way of life in education right now.”

Hoke County has no charter or private schools and it is the largest employer in its county. And it’s poor. As of the 2013-14 school year, 73.62 percent of its student population was considered “needy.” And districts with large amounts of “needy” students aren’t the most attractive spots for prospective teachers.

Though Thomas said the departure won’t stop Hoke County from providing the best education possible, the loss of good teachers is an impetus for reflection.

“Anytime there’s a huge turnover, you do have to stop for a minute,” she said. “You know, it does impact. You’d be crazy to say that it didn’t.”

Still, she said she’s not worried that South Carolina will become a regular poacher of teachers with a county address.

“I think that…God looks out for us. And he knows that we’re taking care of the best commodity we have,” she said. 

Conclusion

It’s easy to fall into simplistic reporting when it comes to a report such as this one, but the details are complex and don’t lend themselves to easy analysis. They don’t really portray one picture of turnover, but rather many small pictures across the state.

Numbers are neutral, but their presentation is not. Whenever hearing reports on education statistics, don’t take anybody’s word at face value. Instead, look at the report for yourself and decide what you think is happening. We mean it. Do it now. We did.

You can read the report here. Tell us what you think.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.