Frustration with standardized testing, low pay and benefits, and little autonomy are pushing teachers to leave the classroom. The findings are based on interviews with successful secondary teachers who quit.
The turnover may be costing the United States as much as $2.2 billion a year, researchers estimate.
Despite working in a profession they say they love, teachers often become demoralized by a culture of high-stakes testing in which their evaluations are tied to student scores and because they have little say in the curriculum.
The emphasis on standardized testing is the result of a policy agenda designed to make US students more globally competitive.
But “preparing students to answer multiple choice questions,” is not true learning, says Alyssa Hadley Dunn, assistant professor of teacher education at Michigan State University.
“Those are not the skills that created Silicon Valley and Facebook, and I don’t believe the child who will eventually cure cancer will achieve that by learning to choose between A and B.”
Why Teachers Stay
Frustration with high-stakes testing and top-down educational policies is part of what led Dunn, in 2009, to leave her job as an urban high school English teacher in Atlanta. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, the teacher turnover rate in low-income schools is about 20 percent per year—roughly 50 percent higher than the rate in affluent schools.
While previous research has examined why teachers quit after the fact, Dunn wanted to explore the issue while teachers were still wrestling with the decision, to get a real-time take on the problem.
For a study published in Urban Review, the teachers she interviewed say the factors that make them want to continue teaching include their students, colleagues, commitment to the profession, and concerns about pursuing a new career in hard economic times.
Don’t Blame Students
“As previous research has shown, it is not, contrary to popular opinion, students who drive teachers out of the classroom,” Dunn says.
But the negative factors—including lack of quality instruction time and low salaries—outweigh the positive aspects of teaching and lead teachers to quit.
The average US teacher salary decreased 1.3 percent between 2000 and 2013—to $56,383, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Further, the United States ranks 22 out of 27 participating countries in a 2011 study of teacher salaries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
In addition, lack of support appear to play an important role. Teachers need more than professional development—they also need personal support, even if that’s a colleague or an organized group to talk to about the pressures they face, Dunn says.
“How can teachers and administrators support each other in having courageous conversations about what teaching is doing to them and how can they work together to ease some of the common stressors?”