For two years, news articles have been warning of an impending “mass exodus” of K–12 public school teachers and principals, which could leave schools scrambling to fill positions. Just last week, The Washington Post reported that the problem has reached “crisis levels.”
Many of these news reports draw on surveys asking teachers and principals if they are considering leaving their jobs, while others also employ data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics or other federal sources.
There is no single source for reliable current data about teacher and principal turnover or job openings, so it's understandable that journalists—and researchers like us—rely on survey data to monitor the health of the teacher and principal workforce.
The danger of relying on teachers' and principals' self-reported intentions to leave their job is that they overestimate actual turnover.
The danger of relying on teachers' and principals' self-reported intentions to leave their job is that they overestimate actual turnover.Share on Twitter
Our own research, and other studies (PDF), suggest that only about a third of teachers and a fifth of principals who indicated they wanted to leave the profession actually did so by the following school year.
Instead, our research and others' suggests that intentions to leave can be interpreted as an indicator of job satisfaction—or in this case, dissatisfaction. These survey results have a place as part of broader stories of teacher dissatisfaction and as context for how teachers are feeling about their work.
Only about a third of teachers and a fifth of principals who indicated they wanted to leave the profession actually did so by the following school year.
Using our own survey item from a nationally representative January 2022 survey as a reference point, we see four things journalists should keep in mind when examining “intentions to leave” survey data.
About one-third of our respondents indicated an intention to leave their jobs by the end of the 2021–2022 school year. This is the survey question we asked:
What is the likelihood that you will leave your job at your school by the end of the current school year (2021–2022), compared with the likelihood you would have left your job before the COVID-19 pandemic?
01 Likely to leave before the COVID-19 pandemic, but unlikely now
02 Unlikely to leave before, but likely now
03 Likely to leave both before and now
04 Unlikely to leave both before and now
First, journalists should note how the survey defines turnover—and make it clear to the reader.
Researchers define turnover as having three components: (1) attrition, or educators leaving the profession entirely; (2) mobility, or educators remaining in the profession but switching schools; and, more rarely (3) churn, educators remaining in their school but changing teaching assignments, e.g., switching from a 3rd grade classroom to a 4th grade classroom.
Our “intentions to leave” survey item asked educators whether they would “leave [their] job at [their] school by the end of the current school year”, which covers educators intending to leave teaching (attrition) and those intending to switch schools (mobility).
Turnover rates which only consider attrition will be lower than those which combine both attrition and mobility. Mobility might lead to a local temporary scramble for teachers; larger-than-usual attrition numbers nationally could signal a shrinking teacher workforce.
Second, journalists should note when the survey was fielded and give readers some understanding of how the timing might affect the results.
Our survey came in the middle of the 2021–2022 academic year, well ahead of the need to make a formal decision to resign or retire. It also coincided with the spike of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, potentially leading more educators to have health or safety concerns. The specific wording of our survey item, which prompted consideration of the COVID-19 pandemic, may have also led to responses that were particularly sensitive to COVID-19 rates.
Surveys fielded closer to the end of the school year may align more closely to teachers' and principals' actual behavior. We witnessed this firsthand when we fielded this same “intentions to leave” item across two surveys in 2021. The first, in January 2021, found that 23 percent of teachers intended to leave their job at the end of the year. In the second, fielded in March 2021, only 18 percent of teachers intended to leave, a rate much closer to typical prepandemic turnover rate of about 16 percent for teachers (PDF).
Third, journalists should be aware of the representativeness and sample size of the surveys at hand.
We provide technical documentation with information on how our surveys were sampled and weighted to provide readers with information to gauge the representativeness of our results.
Fourth, we encourage journalists to look at “intentions to leave” measures as something more than a teacher turnover warning light.
Educators' intentions to leave are an indicator of job (dis)satisfaction.Share on Twitter
We find that educators' intentions to leave are an indicator of job (dis)satisfaction and were significantly linked to burnout, symptoms of depression, and other negative indicators of well-being in our analyses.
Media coverage that focuses only on the connection, or lack thereof, between teachers' “intentions to leave” and actual turnover stands the risk of minimizing the clearly stated dissatisfaction that educators are expressing.
Turnover is detrimental to schools and students, but so is a workforce of persistently dissatisfied educators.
Sy Doan is an associate policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, where he works extensively with the American Educator Panels to research issues facing K–12 educators and students. He uses quantitative methods to study educator effectiveness, professional development, use of instructional materials, and K–12 finance. Elizabeth D. Steiner is a policy researcher at RAND, where she focuses on ways to improve U.S. public education, reduce racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps, and improve equity of educational and life outcomes.
This commentary originally appeared on The Grade on August 10, 2022. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.