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James V. Shuls

I wasn’t able to attend the recent meeting for the Missouri State Board of Education, but from what I can gather from Twitter, an alleged teacher retention crisis was a major topic of conversation. In his report to the board, Paul Katnik, assistant commissioner in the Office of Educator Quality, cited some alarming figures. Board member Vic Lenz reportedly said it is going to take a collaborative effort among all stakeholders to address the issue of teacher recruitment and retention.

There certainly is a problem, but it isn’t what you may think. The problem is misunderstanding.

Katnik was relying on a DESE report to the Missouri General Assembly in December 2018.  The report lists turnover figures which could easily be mistaken for statewide turnover numbers.  Check out the table below.

Teacher Retention Over Time

In the report, DESE claims that the three-year teacher retention rate for teachers starting in 2015-16 was just 63.4%. This number drops to a shocking 34.6% for the five-year retention rate of teachers starting in 2014-15. To the casual observer, the takeaway is that only roughly a third of our teachers are staying in the profession. What’s worse, these numbers seem to be going down over time. In other words, teacher retention appears to be going from bad to worse.

But, that is not what this table is actually showing. The figures presented here are not retention in the field, but retention at the school/district level. In other words, if a teacher were to leave one district for another they would be counted as not being retained.   

In this post, I use data provided by DESE to show the state retention rate of educators in Missouri. I limited the data to only individuals who appeared to be full-time employees in their start year.

In the figure below, I look at the cohort survival for new teachers beginning in 2000 and 2009. The teachers are tracked for nine years, all that was possible given the data. As you can see, retention rates for new teachers in 2000 and 2009 are almost identical. After nine years, nearly 45% are still in the education profession in Missouri. This is well-above DESE’s five-year estimate of retention.

Missouri New Teacher Nine Year Retention Rates

These number more closely fit the percentage of teachers leaving the field in the U.S. Department of Education’s Teacher Attrition and Mobility study, which found roughly 7-8% of teachers leave the profession each year.

Looking at a shorter period of five years, I compare the retention rates for new teachers in 2000, 2009, and 2013 below.  As this chart shows, the five-year cohort survival is getting better, not worse. For new teachers in 2013, over 65% were still in the profession after five years. 

Missouri New Teacher Five Year Retention Rates

The numbers presented here are different than DESE’s numbers because we are measuring different things. They look at building level turnover. That is not the best way to measure a state’s health in teacher retention. We have over 500 school districts, and we should expect some movement of teachers among the districts. People move, their spouses get jobs elsewhere, and they seek higher pay or job advancement. For all sorts of reasons, teachers change schools. That is not an indictment of the field and does not require state intervention.   

Before the State Board of Education begins a massive collaborative effort to address the non-issue of a fictitious teacher retention crisis, they should look at all the facts. Whether you look at new teachers starting in 2000, 2009, or 2013, sixty percent or more are still in the profession in the state after five years.

We do not have a statewide epidemic, but many individual school districts may have teacher retention problems. And, just as these problems are local, they will in most cases require local solutions, not broad statewide policies.


About the Author

James Shuls
James Shuls
Distinguished Fellow of Education Policy

James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Distinguished Fellow in Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute.