Why Teachers Leave: What the Data Say

February 28, 2019 • Lars Esdal

This is the third post in a series on retaining teachers. The prior post looked at the data on teacher turnover and why it matters. This post explores the factors that contribute to high turnover.

Addressing the problem of teacher turnover—and the negative effects on students, teachers, and schools that come with it—requires looking deeply at its root causes. This post explores those root causes using data available, mostly from surveys; later posts in this series will feature perspectives and stories directly from teachers.

What data is available?

Much of the data on why teachers leave comes from a major national survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics every three to four years. Teachers are asked whether they left their job or the profession at the end of the last year and if so are asked—among a list of about 25 possible reasons—to indicate the extent to which each reason played a role.

On a state level, Minnesota’s teacher licensure reporting system also collects data on public school teachers who move on, however the reason for leaving is filled in by school administrators who select from a smaller set of nine possible reasons. As such, state data provides less detail than national data on reasons for leaving.

Finally, a number of schools and districts track data on turnover and the reasons for it at a local level, through surveys, exit interviews, and more. For example, Minneapolis Public Schools recently presented some of its internal data on retention as part of an internal working group on retaining teachers of color.

Three main types of reasons

Synthesizing across several of these national, state, and local sources—and reviewing several meta analyses—we break down teachers’ reasons for leaving into three main buckets for the purposes of this series:

  • General reasons (which apply to all professions, not just teachers);
  • Profession-level reasons (which apply to all teachers, to varying degrees); and
  • School-level reasons (which are specific to a particular teacher’s workplace).

In the remainder of this post, we review these three buckets, and the primary reasons within each of them.

First, one important caveat: none of these reasons stand alone; several reasons may together contribute to a teacher’s ultimate decision to leave. Evidence for the relative importance of each reason varies greatly based on which survey, which study—and of course which teacher—you consult. In general, we placed reasons with greater evidence of importance lower in the list below. Future posts in this series will tease out more about the relationships between these reasons, and their relative magnitude.

General reasons

Teachers leave their jobs for reasons mostly independent of either the profession as a whole or their specific workplaces. Those include:

  • Retirement. For example, in Minnesota about 1,500 teachers—or about 22 percent of the 7,000 teachers who left per data from 2018-2019—retired at the end of the year.
  • Life events. A teacher may move with their spouse or partner for work, take leave to care for a sick family member, stay home with a child, or other reasons not specifically related to their job or career as a teacher.

Profession-level reasons

This second bucket of reasons includes those which may apply differently by school or district context, but generally affect all teachers. Those include:

  • Dissatisfaction with the profession as a whole. This includes things like frustration with the lack of opportunities for professional advancement, with assessments and accountability measures, and with “teaching as a career” overall.
  • Low pay. Paying teachers a higher salary shows links with reduced turnover, and is certainly valued by teachers. When research factors in other reasons, pay is important but often shows weaker links than some of the other reasons on this list.

School-level reasons

The third and final bucket of reasons includes those specific to a given district or school. Those include:

  • Inadequate supports. Teachers indicate that support—including intentional onboarding, mentorship, PLCs, and professional development opportunities—can deter turnover, especially in their early years of teaching. Research evidence for that link is present, albeit mixed.
  • Challenges with school culture, climate, and/or leadership. This reason basically comes back to poor relationships among both adults and students in the building—and includes, in particular, things like dissatisfaction with administration, student discipline issues, hostile relationships with colleagues, and fears about school safety.
  • Inability to shape poor working conditions. A final reason related to the above two, and one with significant empirical evidence, is the frustration teachers feel with the working conditions on their job and their lack of ability to shape them. Regression analyses, holding all else constant, consistently rank this reason top or near the top.

School-level causes of turnover as an equity issue

So far, this post has considered reasons for teacher turnover in aggregate. In practice, the extent and causes of turnover vary based on school demographics, as well as by teachers’ backgrounds and identities.

In schools where more than half of students are students of color, turnover is a staggering 70 percent higher than those where 10 percent or fewer of students are students of color.

In disaggregating the data, we see that the school-level factors described above contribute to higher-than-average turnover among teachers in high-poverty schools and those serving students of color. Namely, turnover in Title 1 schools is nearly 40 percent higher than in non-Title 1 schools. And, in schools where more than half of students are students of color, turnover is a staggering 70 percent higher than those where 10 percent or fewer of students are students of color. These discrepancies have major implications for educational equity.

Relatedly, teachers of color—who are two to three times more likely than their white peers to teach in schools serving primarily students in poverty and students of color—are also more likely to experience these challenging school-level working conditions. For example, according to a 2015 survey of the 430 educators of color in Minnesota, the top four reasons for leaving included dissatisfaction with administration, a sense of racial isolation, lack of mentoring and support, and lack of influence and autonomy—all school-level factors.

Later posts in this series will explore the inequitable effects of teacher turnover in greater detail, through synthesis of research and by holding up personal stories.

Fostering conditions where talent thrives

The next post in this series pivots from looking at the challenge to exploring solutions. In particular, it looks more closely at the school-level reasons described above—including leadership, school climate, and teacher influence—and what we know from research works to foster positive and healthy workplaces where talent thrives.

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We are grateful to the McKnight Foundation for their generous financial support for this series.