Why it’s So Hard to Make Sense of the Reports of a Mass Exodus From the Teaching Profession
As a new school year begins the education system is again in the headlines, with much talk of fed-up teachers leaving the profession on such a scale as to warrant the term “crisis” — and the press doing its usual lousy job of explaining the topic. Various pieces have given us various numbers to support their assessment of the situation, but per usual little or none of the context that would clarify their meaning. We are told again and again that x numbers of teachers’ quit, that there are so many thousand vacant positions in this or that state. But we could only really know if that signals a crisis if we have something to compare those numbers to — numbers that would tell us what the situation is like in “normal” times.
Indeed, I had to spend a lot of time trudging through a lot of the coverage before I came across Derek Thompson’s piece in The Atlantic baldly asserting that “[c]omprehensive national data on teacher-turnover rates (the share of teachers who quit each year) . . . are simply not available, or don’t go back far enough to tell us whether this year is different.”
In other words, Thompson reports that the statistics that would give us the standard just don’t exist because no one has bothered to collect the data, or at least, compute the relevant information.
However, I think the key word there is “comprehensive.” While a rigorously constructed time series for the country as a whole would be ideal I have found it easy to locate patchier data covering particular years that may or may not be representative, and particular localities, which suggest a rate of perhaps 8 percent a year. As there are some 3.5 million primary and secondary school teachers in the U.S., that would work out to something in the range of 250,000–300,000 teachers leaving the profession in a normal year. This pattern would seem confirmed in a Bureau of Labor Statistics projection that some 270,000 primary and secondary-school teachers would be leaving the profession annually in 2016–2026.
If we go by those estimates then one would expect the standard for a post-pandemic elevation of the rate to mean 300,000+ departing each year, and perhaps many more.
For what it is worth, the Wall Street Journal reports a departure of a mere 300,000 public school staff of all kinds (and therefore, not all of them teachers) in the entire February 2020 to May 2022 period.
It is possible that there are other, different estimates — but so far I have not seen any other statistics purportedly addressing the matter as delineated in precisely that way (departures from K-12 teaching over the whole time frame).
In their absence taking that claim at face value it would seem that quits have actually been few in number relative to a normal period.
I have to admit that I find what may actually be a decline in departures from the profession on the part of teachers deeply counterintuitive, given the elevation of quit rates in general that has given rise to talk of a Great Resignation; given the reality that even before the pandemic there was considerable discontent with conditions in the teaching profession; and that the stresses of the pandemic; must have had some negative effect on the willingness of those in the job to stay in it.
However, it may be the case that other factors are offsetting all that.
One may be what has been said by some analysts of the Great Resignation — that much of it is about people leaving a job they don’t like to take another, more attractive, job, in the same line of work. Teachers who quit a job at one school and take up a job at another school they think will be more congenial would not count as leaving the profession — even as their departures create difficulties for the schools they left, with the less attractive places to work plausibly suffering disproportionately (and indeed, we are told that poorer school districts, and rural and urban districts, are suffering relative to affluent suburban districts offering better pay and conditions).
Another factor may be that, as their relatively high unionization, and perhaps rising militancy, suggest, many teachers have some inclination to try and bargain collectively for a better deal rather than take their individual chances with the market (certainly as against private-sector computer programmers).
Moreover, one should remember — even if not every writer of such articles seems to do so — that the sense of the situation being one of crisis is as much a matter of what people have been told might happen as what actually has happened. If there has as yet been no “mass exodus” from the profession, some, pointing to an abundance of polling data in which teachers report that they are seriously thinking about quitting, that these accumulating stresses will come to a head in exactly that fashion. The significance of the data is difficult to ascertain, as it is far from clear how many can or will act on such thoughts — but it seems safe to say the entry into this more speculative territory has permitted that much more room for the play of fear and prejudice about the matter, with results all too predictable across the ideological spectrum.
Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.