Why Do New Teachers Leave the Profession?


The education problem being addressed in this article is the high attrition rate of new public school teachers in the United States. This is a problem because roughly a quarter of all beginning teachers leave the profession within three years and 40-50% leave within five years (Galant & Riley, 2014; Ingersoll & Smith, 2003; National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, 2003; U.S. Department of Education, 2007). Historically, when there has been a shortage of teachers to meet the demands for filling classrooms, many of the nation’s schools have lowered their standards to fill teacher vacancies (Darling-Hammond, 1984; Loeb, Darling-Hammond, & Luczak, 2005). High attrition rates also disrupt the quality, continuity, and planning of teaching programs, causing increased expenditures on the part of school districts in their efforts to recruit and hire replacement teachers (National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, 2013; Shen, 1997). This problem is important to address because a less qualified educator workforce results in lower school performance and achievement (Borman & Dowlin, 2008; Boyd, 2008; Ronfeldt, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2013).

Given this problem, the purpose of this article is the following: 1) to understand how research on attrition is approached by scholars 2) to examine three factors related to high attrition rates: students, teachers, and schools.

Review of Relevant Research

A challenge to understanding new teacher attrition is that researchers have varying constructs and approaches for studying it. For example, Djonko-Moore (2015) has grounded her studies in social ecological theory. Gallant and Riley (2014) have examined attrition from a more holistic perspective. Shen (1997) proposed that there are essentially two general approaches to studying new teacher attrition: multivariate or theoretical, and bivariate. The multivariate approach makes inquiry into a set of variables to test theories as to why teachers leave or stay; some examples are the human capital theory, social learning theory, and theory of teachers as rational economic decision-makers (Shen, 1997). Chapman and Green (1986) utilized a multivariate approach in their study of four groups of University of Michigan graduates; their findings concluded that attrition could be ascribed to the social learning process. Bivariate approaches are more prevalent in the literature, such as in Hughes’ (2012) study that examined the relationship between a teacher’s gender and attrition. Similarly, DeAngelis and Presley’s (2011) study measured the impact of teaching assignments on attrition. Though approaches have varied, the evidence is unanimous that student characteristics are factors that have contributed to new teacher attrition.

The Student Factor

Student characteristics have been identified across research studies to explain why new teachers leave the profession. A study using National Center for Education Statistics’ 2007-09 survey data found that negative student behavior in high-poverty, racially segregated schools increased the likelihood of new teacher attrition by 368% (Djonko-Moore, 2015). Kukla-Acevedo (2009) discovered that the behavioral climate created by students was a critical factor the contributed to the attrition of first year teachers. They were 16 times more likely to quit teaching when they perceived their students’ behavior to be severely negative or one standard deviation higher than average (Kukla-Acevedo, 2009). Loeb et al. (2005) examined the predictors of high rates of teacher turnover and found that ethnic, racial, language composition, and poverty level of a school’s student body strongly contributed to higher attrition. In addition to student factors, teacher characteristics have contributed to higher attrition.

The Teacher Factor

Much research has been conducted to examine how teachers’ own characteristics factor into attrition. Studies have been inconsistent about the impact of certain personal and background characteristics like gender, race/ethnicity, and age (Borman & Dowling, 2008; Boyd, Grossman, Ing, Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2011). For example, when attrition rates of White teachers to minority teachers were compared, study results have been mixed. In some cases, White teachers were more likely to leave than Latino teachers (Imazeki, 2005). In other situations, minority teachers were more likely to leave the profession (Kirby, Berends, & Naftel, 1999). However, studies that have inquired into teachers’ academic and professional preparation have been more conclusive in their findings (Guarino, Santibañez, & Daley, 2006). DeAngelis and Presley (2011) analyzed 30 years of population data in Illinois that included 23 cohorts of new teachers. It found that 44% of new teachers with ACT scores of 25 or higher left teaching within their first 5 years compared to an average of 36% for teachers with scores of 18 or below. In addition, 47% of new teachers who had a graduate degree (master’s degree or higher) left the profession compared to 39% of those who only possessed a bachelor’s degree (DeAngelis & Presley, 2011). Boyd, Lankford, Loeb and Wyckoff (2005) demonstrated that teachers who graduated from more selective undergraduate institutions, as defined and ranked by Barron’s College Guide, were more likely to leave the profession.

Research has shown that a psychological factor known as teacher self-efficacy is related to new teacher attrition. Self-efficacy can be understood as a teacher’s belief regarding his or her ability to influence matters in the classroom and school (Hong, 2012; Hughes, 2012; Shen, 1997). Hong’s (2012) study compared 14 new teachers, seven of whom quit while the other seven remained. It found that both groups faced similar challenges in terms of work environment, classroom management, and lesson delivery. However, the teachers who quit often doubted their abilities and imposed heavy burdens on themselves that led to stress and burnout. Studies have also shown that teachers who displayed stronger self-efficacy beliefs more positively impacted student achievement (Ross & Gray, 2006; Ware & Kitsantas, 2007). Policy makers, researchers, and educators can also learn much about new teacher attrition by examining school characteristics.

The School Factor

School characteristics can be understood as the many components that form the operational and cultural climate of a school. Research suggested that the cultural climate of a school may be the strongest indicator influencing the attrition of new teachers (Hughes, 2012; Kukla-Acevedo, 2009). School leadership has been shown to powerfully influence attrition (Boyd et al., 2011; Goldring, Taie, & Riddles, 2014). A study that involved former and current teachers highlighted that the most influential factor (over 40%) for both groups whether or not to leave teaching was dissatisfaction with administration (Boyd et al., 2011). A meta-analysis was conducted using 34 attrition studies, and it was found that new teacher attrition was much higher in schools that lacked a culture of teacher networking and collaboration (Borman & Dowling, 2008). In a study that involved nine beginning teachers who left the profession within five years, major findings were that each of them did not feel welcome, veteran teachers were reluctant to share their expertise, and schools were full of conflict (Gallant & Riley, 2014). One teacher confessed in her narrative about the situation with colleagues: “[they were] too embroiled in their own affairs and internal politics to really give me the guidance that I needed” (Gallant & Riley, 2014, p. 573). According to the literature, this was not a unique experience. In a large scale study that involved 26,257 teachers, Ware and Kitsantas (2007) analyzed 1999-2000 Schools and Staffing Survey data. They found a direct link between teachers’ level of career satisfaction and their perceived support from leadership and colleagues. The lower the perceived support, the lower the career satisfaction; many who have left teaching have reported low career satisfaction (Ware & Kitsantas, 2007).

Importance of the Problem

The issue of high attrition rates for new teachers continues to capture the attention of American policymakers, researchers, educators, and the public because of the adverse impact on education organizations and student learning. This problem is important to solve because research has shown that teachers generally need five years of solid teaching experience to become effective at improving student achievement (Rivkin, Hanushek, & Kain, 2005). Part of the solution involves providing new teachers with sufficient preparation and support to provide all students with a quality education across geographic and demographic areas (Boyd et al., 2011). Providing this support is difficult when recent research demonstrated that new teachers tend to be placed in more difficult schools, faced with more challenging students and work conditions, furthering the likely cycle of burnout that leads to quitting (Boyd, 2008; Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2002). Failing to solve this problem of new teacher attrition in the United States will make entering the profession unattractive to new, qualified candidates (Ingersoll & Smith, 2003).

Utilizing Professional Learning Communities

Looking forward, however, a promising strategy to address the problem of new teacher attrition is the implementation of a learning communities perspective in schools (Wynn, Patall, & Carboni, 2007). Dufour and Eaker (1998) describe a professional learning community as an open, adaptive school system where teachers are valued and committed to personal and organizational growth. It is more advantageous in addressing the problem of new teacher attrition than a one factor solution such as proposing higher teacher salaries (Wynn, Patall, & Carboni, 2007). Additionally, a professional learning community provides a multifaceted solution to the problem: student achievement is improved, teachers’ skills are increased by way professional development learning cycles, and the school climate is more positive as a result of supportive leadership and colleagues (Stoll, Bolam, McMahon, Wallace, & Thomas, (2006).


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