Much ink has been devoted to the teaching profession’s increasingly gray and green complexion — the profusion of teachers at the two extremes of the age spectrum. There are lots of veteran teachers older than 50. Meanwhile, school systems have hired hundreds of thousands of cheaper newbies without much experience in the classroom. That leaves the U.S. school system without as much weight in the happy middle of mid-career, experienced teachers.
But new data from the National Center for Education Statistics,”Teacher Attrition and Mobility: Results From the 2012–13 Teacher Follow-up Survey, First Look,” released Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, shows that these troubling trends may be abating. In the 2012-13 school year, only 12 percent of the nation’s 3.4 million public school teachers (that includes public charter schools) had less than four years of teaching experience. Compare that with an earlier NCES report that put the percentage of rookie teachers with 1-3 years teaching experience at 17 percent. That’s a 5 percentage point decline in the number of the most inexperienced teachers.
Similarly, there’s good news at the opposite end. Back in 2008-09, a third of the teaching force was 50 years or older. That’s dropped slightly to 31 percent in 2012-13.
What that means, according to Richard Ingersoll, a University of Pennsylvania professor of education who studies teacher turnover, is that the graying of the teaching force is over. “The graying — which was a big story — that is done,” he said. That’s because older teachers have been retiring and are continuing to retire. And there isn’t a huge group of teachers in their forties just behind them.
According to Ingersoll’s analysis, the most common teacher in 1987 had 15 years of teaching experience. But because of two decades of rapid hiring in school districts around the country, by 2008 the most common teacher had only one year of teaching experience. That has again changed because of the decrease in teacher hirings since the recession. “Now that’s not quite true; now the most common teacher is someone in their fifth year,” he said.
Whether rookie teachers will remain a smaller part of the teaching force is unclear. The recent reduction in new hires could be a momentary blip of the 2008 recession, when school systems around the country were scaling back on new hires and laying off teachers (usually those with the least seniority were laid off first). So far, there aren’t any indications that school districts are hiring again. But Ingersoll argues that the two decades of massive hiring until 2008 — with a 48 percent growth in the teaching force compared with only a 19 percent increase in the student population — mean that it will take a much larger decline in the teaching force to rebalance the teacher-student ratio to what it used to be. (The total number of U.S. public and charter school teachers fell only slightly, by 2400 teachers to 3,377,900 in 2012-13.)
The new teacher turnover data also reveal that the charter school sector, often criticized for hiring young teachers who change schools frequently or leave the profession, is becoming more stable. Back in 2008-09, 23.9 percent of charter school teachers either changed schools or left the profession. In 2012-13, only 18.4 percent of charter school teachers had changed schools or left the profession. That’s a 5.5 percentage point decrease in charter school faculty turnover. By contrast, teacher turnover in traditional public schools was virtually flat, at about 15.5 percent, during the same time period.
It’s also unclear whether faculty stability at charter schools is here to stay. It could be that these non-unionized teachers were affected by the recession and didn’t leave their jobs because there weren’t as many job prospects elsewhere. Interestingly, the public school teaching profession is otherwise impervious to economic cycles. Most other professions see a decrease in turnover during recessions because there aren’t as many job prospects elsewhere. But annual teacher turnover has barely budged during the past 15 years over various business cycles, hovering between 15 and 16 percent.
Although the overall picture looks more sunny, with fewer inexperienced rookies and more mid-career teachers in the ranks, one alarming data point emerges. Teacher turnover has grown at schools with high poverty levels. Among schools where more than 75 percent of the students qualified for free or reduced price lunch, many of them in large urban districts, teacher turnover hit 22 percent in 2012-13. In order to get an average number like that, it means that some schools likely saw 40 percent of their teachers leave in one year. In the 2008-2009 school year, by contrast, average teacher turnover in high poverty schools was 15 percent. (See Table 2 in both studies here and here).