Because complex stories invariably involve both winners and losers, journalists are schooled to ask ‘“Who benefits?” when doing their reporting. Even in the worst of situations, some people and organizations seem to end up benefiting. For example, in a city with badly maintained roads, more cars are damaged and auto repair shops make more money; in a town with inadequate or unsafe drinking water, those who sell bottled water profit. And when reporters dig deeper, they often find that the beneficiaries are the major obstacles to remedying unfair situations.
However, I cannot recall anyone asking that all-important question about the exceptionally high rate of turnover–some call it churn’–in our teaching force.
So let’s ask it now: Who benefits from teacher turnover?
Precise “churn” numbers are hard to come by, but somewhere between 30% and 50% of all new teachers leave the profession within their first five years. Turnover is not evenly or randomly distributed: teachers in low-income neighborhoods leave in much larger numbers. I’ve been in schools with annual turnover rates of 25-35% every year.
Turnover is not inherently bad, of course. When older teachers ‘age out’ of the profession, they retire and are replaced. Alternate-certification programs like Teach for America operate from the premise that most of its ‘graduates’ will not make a career out of teaching, adding to the churn. Some new teachers turn out to be pretty bad and are let go, and others discover that teaching is a lot harder than they expected and look for greener pastures.
The churn, which seems to be increasing, has had a profound impact on our teaching force. As recently as 1987, schools were hiring only about 65,000 new teachers a year. By 2008, the last year I found data for, schools were hiring 200,000 new teachers. As a consequence of the churn, one-quarter of our teachers have less than five years of experience, and that’s a huge change: In 1987 the modal ‘years of experience’ was 15—we had more teachers with 15 years of teaching experience than any other. Today the modal teacher is a rookie in her first year on the job. 
So, who benefits when schools have to find replacements for so many teachers every year?
The obvious answer would seem to be school boards (and taxpayers), because green teachers are cheaper than white-haired veterans. Payments into retirement plans are lower, because those dollars are a function of salaries, and new teachers earn less. 
But I nominate schools and colleges of education as the primary beneficiaries of churn. After all, someone has to train the replacements. Consider one state, Illinois: In 2012, its institutions of higher education graduated over 43,000 education majors, presumably the majority of them trained to be teachers. Illinois K-12 schools employ about 145,000 teachers. If 20% leave in a given year, that creates 29,000 vacancies–I.E., jobs for 29,000 replacements.
If 10% opt out, the schools need 14,500 trained replacements.
But if only 5% of Illinois’ teachers left every year, there would be just 7,250 job openings for the state’s 43,000 graduates who majored in education.
So is in the interest of Illinois higher education and its teacher-training institutions to help make teaching a job that more people want to keep? Or do they benefit from the churn?
As the lawyers say, asked and answered.
I don’t mean to pick on Illinois. Every institution in America that prepares teachers is on the horns of a dilemma. They want classroom teaching to be seen as an attractive career option so undergraduates will choose to major in education instead of, say, sociology or nursing. But, on the other hand, they benefit when teaching jobs are plentiful, and so the exodus of teachers from the classroom works to their advantage.
So, who benefits from our wasteful churning system? Who benefits when teaching turns out to be an unsatisfying profession for so many?
If I am right about schools of education and school boards being the beneficiaries of churn, then it follows that neither of them can be entrusted with the responsibility for making teaching a genuine profession. In fact, it may turn out that schools of education and school boards have been and will be obstacles to genuine change.
Instead, we may have to ask those who lose from constant churn to provide the leadership.
Who are the losers, and what can they do to make teaching an appealing job? I have a few ideas about this, but I’d like to hear your thoughts first.
- 1. If you haven’t read ‘The American Public School Teacher: Past, Present & Future,’ I hope you will. (Harvard Education Press, 2011) Lots of valuable essays, edited by Darrel Drury and Justin Baer. Full disclosure: I blurbed it.↵
- 2. If school boards help new teachers succeed by mentoring them as they learn classroom management and other tricks of the trade, then churn is not a way to save money. However, my experience has been that many, perhaps most, school systems are content to let new teachers ‘sink or swim’ on their own.↵
- 3. The largest producer of teachers, Illinois State University, has more than 5000 would-be teachers enrolled, and its website reports that one of four new teachers hired in Illinois between 2008-2011 was an ISU graduate.↵
- 4. Catalyst Magazine reports that enrollment in pre-teaching programs is dropping in Illinois, which suggests that more young people are aware of what many call ‘the war on teachers’ that’s been going on for the past 10 years or so. “After years of holding steady, enrollment fell significantly in 2011 and 2012—by 23 percent overall,” it reports.↵